• Advice

4 essential writing lessons from George Orwell

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So many writers, myself included, share a formative experience of loneliness that turned into a fascination with storytelling. The impulse to tell stories, and creating stories to keep ourselves company, is what writing is largely about, aside from the craft itself.

The great English author George Orwell shared that formative loneliness: "I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories, and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued," Orwell wrote in his great 1946 essay "Why I Write." He’d go on to be among the most influential writers of the 20th Century, and he remains influential today.

Before I go any further, I want to make a personal admission, which is that George Orwell has been my favorite writer, the one who's had the most sustained influence on my development as a writer, for the last three decades. I've read his essays over and over, and have always found them to be exemplars of great substance combined with unrivaled prose style. He’s also an inspirational hero of mine for the ways he used his writing to advocate for social justice.

George Orwell didn't become well-known as a writer, nor financially successful, until the final five years of his short life. It wasn't until his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) were published that he became known in the United States. He died from tuberculosis in 1950 at age 46. He was mostly an unknown journalist specializing in book reviews and essays.

So what does Orwell teach us about writing?

Writing is never easy

Writing was hard for Orwell, especially as his health deteriorated later in life. "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness," he wrote in "Why I Write." Orwell's novels and essays are clear and meditative and wonderfully structured, but he worked hard to make it all seem so easy. Reading Orwell is like skating on ice, but he worked for hours getting his sentences to where he wanted.

Have a purpose, an urgent need to change the world

Orwell created his best work, including “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm,” because he was seeking to right a wrong, to expose injustice. Much of his writing is clearly against the repressions of totalitarianism, imperialism, and (yes) the excesses of capitalism, and in favor of working-class people. "My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice," he explained in "Why I Write."

Clear thinking is the key first step to clear writing, and bad writing makes clear thinking impossible

Orwell believed that there was more bad writing than good: "Vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose," he bemoaned in his classic 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language."

Orwell offers a number of recommendation to think and write clearly. For example, he said writers should always prefer the active voice over the passive. Good writing, like right conduct, must be unafraid to take responsibility. Somebody is writing the words, and so writers need to be brave enough to show the reader who they are and what they believe. Even being passive and evasive let's the reader know who you are. Stand for something.

Clear thinking is related to seeing things clearly, which means describing what you see with exactness

For this reason, Orwell attacked clichés and vague language. He asks writers never to use clichés and metaphors they've seen elsewhere in print. Make things new, he asked, even if that requires the hard work of looking at the world with fresh eyes and writing with fresh language.

Orwell demands that writers think concretely, not in vague abstractions that lead to cloudy writing. As he explained in "Politics and the English Language": "What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about . . .When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly" and then look for precise words to describe the object.

Again, thinking and seeing clearly must be a prerequisite to all good writing.

The first goal of good writing, according to Orwell, is to be understood. He suggests in "Politics and the English Language" that writers eliminate needless words (cut out the fat), prefer shorter words to longer ones (in other words, don't write to impress your reader), and avoid jargon as much as possible, preferring to translate said jargon into layman's language.

Further lessons

There's a lot more that Orwell teaches about writing, but you can read him for yourself. I'd suggest you start with the two great Orwell essays cited at length herein: "Why I Write" and "Politics and the English Language." If you like those, then start reading any collection of his great essays. You'll find yourself in the company of a great writer and teacher, one who'll provide you with a lot of great lessons on writing and thinking clearly.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a freelance B2B Brand Storyteller who connects brands and customers through engaging stories. His clients include ADP, Catalant Technologies, The Boston Globe's BG Brand Lab, and The National Center for the Middle Market. His website is