When reading, what seemed at the time like a God-given burst of creative genius can be instantly transformed into a rambling mass, quickly resulting in the slamming shut of a book, laptop, or, increasingly, iPad or Kindle. How to create great copy is a perennial problem and one that has prompted writers, authors, journalists, and editors to pump out many thousands of pages.
For many years, George Orwell’s five rules, outlined in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” have been the first port of call (Orwell would not like that tired phrase) for writers and writing teachers. Good writing, he says, must:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
The more words you have at your disposal, the more variations and subtleties you will be able to employ in your work. Similarly, an increased awareness and control of grammar opens a whole world of possibilities for sentence, paragraph, and page construction. Get these basics right, and your readers will effortlessly glide through your unexpected twists, clandestine turns, and enigmatic protagonists.
Some might claim that popular culture abounds with grammar that is a purist’s nightmare and yet seems to be doing fine. Pop songs, in particular, flagrantly flout the rules and often become iconic because of it. Renowned lyricist Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” passes all but the most watchful eyes—little does Bob know that his beatnik rhymes have inspired generations of scruffy young people to write incomprehensible sentences. What you can get away with in songs in the recording studio does not translate to the publisher’s office; Bob’s artistic license (in the wrong pens) could send your manuscript to the wrong pile.
In addition to ignoring millionaire songwriter icons, aspiring writers have several avenues for improving their English language skills. They can:
- Move to an English-speaking country – which luckily can be found all around the world.
- Delve into the language’s rich literary past, from Shakespeare and Milton to Rowling and McEwan. If this doesn’t inspire you, nothing will!
- Enroll at one of the language schools London boasts, such as St George International, to get a solid technical grounding.
- Absorb the homegrown music scene and pick up on local lyrics known only to the underground to truly blend in with local speakers.
Story by K.M. Weiland