George Orwell has been in the news lately, not because he authored the classic dystopian novel 1984 but because he wrote a famous set of rules for clear writing which, if followed, might resemble Trump’s tweets.
I say “famous” with some reservations since I had never heard of them before (or forgot about them if I had). Anyway, since I’m always looking for pointers on good writing, I decided to check them out.
What I discovered is that, whatever his original intentions for these rules, they’re a concise and valuable summary of how to write great tweets or, more generally, the short slices of writing that work well when you’re communicating online. Here they are:
1. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.”
Most journalists write on deadline and write articles that must be of a pre-defined length. Since most journalists don’t have much to say, they tend to add a lot padding in order to hit their target article length.
That’s why you see figures of speech in mainstream journalism like “In this day and age,” “ballpark figure,” “when all is said and done,” “make no mistake,” etc. These sort of clichés are boring and add bulk to your writing without adding meaning. They waste space even as they fade into the background.
Brevity, however, is the soul of tweet. When you’re tweeting, texting, commenting, or doing anything online other than writing articles or long emails, you want everything to be crisp and vivid as possible. Online readers won’t wade through fluff; they’ll just move on.
2. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Twitter famously has an artificial limitation of 140 (and now 280) characters. While it’s easy to do multiple 1,2,3… tweets, the more wordy you get, the less likely readers are to keep reading.
An easy way to shorten the character count of a tweet is to substitute short words for long words that have the same meaning. Examples: “use” rather than “utilize,” “absurd” rather than “ludicrous,” etc.
However, when you apply this rule, the long and short words in question must have identical meanings. When words have different implications, a long word might pack more punch than a short one and thus be worth the extra length.
For example, while “spectacular” and “showy” have almost identical meanings, the sentence “she wore a spectacular dress” has a different flavor and emotional connotation than “she wore a showy dress.”
3. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Extra words add bulk without adding meaning. And since bulk is the enemy of good in the twitter-sphere, removing words or restructuring sentences to eliminate words are both good habits to cultivate. Examples:
BAD: “The reason people believe in him is that they’re gullible.”
BETTER: “People are gullible and hence believe him.”
BAD: “This application was designed to enable users to reduce cycle time.”
BETTER: “This application reduces cycle time.”
4. “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
There are two reasons why the active voice works better for online communications than the passive voice:
- The active voice (e.g. “he hit me”) is more vivid than the passive voice (e.g. “I was hit by him.”).
- The active voice requires fewer words, thereby making your writing tighter.
I might note that this advice to use the active and eschew the passive is less important in longer form writing because the passive can be quite effectively used to throw emphasis on what’s important in the next sentence.
The sentence above (“I might note”…) makes this point. Converting it to the active voice…
“Because if you want to throw emphasis on an idea that’s going to appear in the next sentence you can use the passive to stick the word you want to emphasize at the end of the sentence.”
…is pretty awkward.
5. “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Foreignisms, techie-talk and jargon are how insiders communicate among their own. They must therefore be avoided whenever your intent is to transfer ideas to those outside your in-crowd. I might add that acronyms have the same limitation.
Obviously, some tweets (like the Instagrams my kids share with their friends) are intended to be understood only by a limited audience (not including parents) and are thus intentionally use jargon. That’s fine, as long as you know what you’re doing. LOL
6. “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”
Expletives, slurs, obscenity, and profanity, as communications tools, can be both vivid and crisp. As such, “barbarous” communication can easily fall within the restrictions of the five rules provided above.
However, using such language can come back to bite you, big time, especially since nothing ever really disappears on the Web.
BTW, Orwell included this rule because he observed that politicians use neologisms and misdirection to tart up dumb ideas, make banal observations seem profound, and hide bad intentions behind high-minded rhetoric.
He believed that following the five previous rules would make those communication strategies impossible. Trump is an excellent example of this. He’s never attempted to use eloquence to hide dumb ideas, banal observations, or bad intentions.
The problem–from the Orwellian perspective–is that Trump says “barbarous” things that actually reflect how he thinks and what he believes. That’s good, in a way, because nobody is being bamboozled by fancy verbiage.