Smart Words of the English LanguageStart - Smart Words

Writing Guide:

 

Creative Writing Tips

6 Questions & Rules

George Orwell (*1903 in British India as Eric Arthur Blair; † 1950 in London) was an English writer, essayist and journalist. From 1921 to 1927 he was an official of the British colonial police in Burma. After his participation in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he wrote social portraits and essays. Through his utopias “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949) Orwell became known world-wide and in 2008 “The Times” ranked him second on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945" (first and third being Philip Larkin (e.g. “Selected Poems”) and William Golding (e.g. “Lord of the Flies”) respectively).

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  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.

From Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946).

Selected Advice

  1. If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. [Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967); American poet, short story writer, critic, and satirist]
  2. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing. [Henry Miller (1891 – 1980); American writer (known for breaking with existing literary rules, e.g.the novel "Tropic of Cancer" banned in the US until 1961)]
  3. I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide. [Harper Lee (1926 – 2016); American novelist widely known for "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960) (she wrote only one other book)]
  4. You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. [Jack London (1876 – 1916); American novelist & journalist; e.g. "White Fang" & "John Barleycorn" (autobiographical novel)]
  5. There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. [William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965); British writer (e.g. "The Razor's Edge" & "The Painted Veil")]
  6. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that. [Stephen King (*1947); American author (e.g. "Shining" & "Finders Keepers")]
  7. If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. [William Zinsser (1922 – 2015) American editor & teacher (e.g. "On Writing Well")]
  8. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration. [Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) American novelist & journalist (e.g. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" & "The Old Man and The Sea")]
  9. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. [Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) Irish essayist & poet (e.g. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" & "The Importance of Being Earnest")]
  10. Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. [Lev Grossman (*1969); American novelist & book critic]
  11. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you." — Zadie Smith
  12. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution." — Michael Moorcock
  13. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. – Neil Gaiman
  14. Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever." — Will Self
  15. Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." – Anton Chekhov
  16. The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’" — Helen Simpson
  17. In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it." — Rose Tremain
  18. The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain
  19. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator." — Jonathan Franzen
  20. Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase / sentence / paragraph / page / story / chapter." — Annie Proulx
  21. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." — Elmore Leonard

Why writting skills are important

Writing letters or essays might be seen so old-fashioned in the age of Internet communication but it is still a very important skill to master. Writing letters is not dead, no matter that instant messaging and e-mails are becoming the major ways of communication. What is more, many of the rules that apply for conventional, printed or handwritten letters apply to e-mails as well.

The medium becomes less important because when you have to write a business letter, there is no difference if you write it by hand, if you type it on your typing machine, or if you sent it by conventional mail, fax or by electronic mail — the same postulates are in power and if you don't know them — bad for you!

Last but not Least

In a Workshop about Poe it was mockingly claimed that "in a recently-found treatise (*), Poe set down the following advice for bettering a story:"

  1. Employ an unreliable narrator, preferably one who doesn’t know he is insane and has no recollection of such events as digging into a grave to rip out the teeth of his recently departed lover.
  2. Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.
  3. Use grandiloquent words, such as heretofore, forthwith, and nevermore. A little Latin will also enhance the text.
  4. Do not shy away from such grotesqueries as inebriation, imprisonment, insanity, and men costumed as orangutans being burned to death.
  5. When in doubt, bury someone alive.

(*) Poe didn't really compose this advice, but, as he was fond of a good hoax, we hope he would be pleased by this affectionate charade.