I’m currently reading Ever The Diplomat by Sherard Cowper- Coles, which is cracking. He spent thirty years working for the Diplomatic Service, and the book is a fascinating look at the work of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the UK’s embassies, and the machinations of diplomacy. Part of his career was spent as a speechwriter to the-then Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, and Cowper-Coles discusses the approach he took to speechwriting, and the guidelines that he followed in crafting messages. One source of guidance was George Orwell’s rules for writing.
I hadn’t previously come across George Orwell’s rules for writing, but the past couple of weeks have seen a couple of news items about language and its impact that show how we all could benefit from using them.
A couple of weeks ago, HSBC were found to have been using the word “demised” as a euphemism for sacking people in letters sent to staff setting out changes to the bank’s operations. On a human level it’s not really a very comforting alternative to “redundancy”. But it’s also quite a passive word that almost makes it sounds like the staff redunandancies aren’t the responsibility of senior management . It makes the management sound like they are cowering behind language: in denial about what is happening (the use of a euphemism when plainly stating the case will do) and pretending it’s not them who are responsible (using a passive term), when everyone knows that’s not the case.
Around the same time there was also the publication of a survey which showed that a quarter of workers found jargon to be a “pointless irritation”. Those responsible for the survey (the Institute of Leadership and Management, who presumably commissioned it as an act of benevolence to bosses rather than as a promotional tool) said that jargon can hold back businesses and leave workers isolated. They found that the words that most irritate people are “thinking outside the box”, “going forward” and “let’s touch base”. Irritating, yes, but at least I know what these phrases mean. It’s when people start talking about “synergies” and “matrix working” that I start to lose the thread.
As fiction writers, there are times when Asylum inmates need to be ambiguous, and occasions when punning and subtle shifts in language can help to drive a story forward, create character, or to create unreliable narrators. (A story last week about a WI’s branch misunderstanding of the term piracy would make a great story). But despite the possibilities that can be opened up by playing about with language, we still need to ensure that we have properly understood the information we’re trying to convey to make the story work. Which brings me back round to George Orwell’s principles for good writing. They are:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.