Sunday, 22 December 2013

The virtues of writing simply


'Those who write clearly have readers,
those who write obscurely have commentators.'

Albert Camus
Academic writing can be daunting. I often find that when trying to communicate complex ideas, coherence and clarity tends to get compromised. However, like any other skill, writing can be perfected by practice.

I recently finished reading Orwell's Why I Write, a collection of essays where he discusses his motivations to write among other things. In an essay called Politics and the English Language, he is particularly critical of how modern English has evolved as a means to confuse instead of communicate. He expresses his disgust for the use of 'dying metaphors' (e.g. toe the line, Achilles heel), 'verbal false limbs' (using phrases where a word would do: e.g. make contact with, prove unacceptable, exhibit the tendency to instead of prove, render, serve), 'pretentious or archaic diction' (such as epoch-making or age-old) and 'meaningless words' (that do not convey anything).

Orwell goes on to list some simple rules to help make decisions while writing:
  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.   
I'd recommend the entire essay for those interested in improving their written communication skills and reading a well-written piece of prose! More resources on writing:
  1. Writers on Writing: A brilliant initiative by Durham University where leading social scientists have written short pieces on the process of writing (My favourites are by Julian Le Grand and Bryan Turner). 
  2. Confronting the anxiety of academic writing by Dr. Rachel Cayley of a great blog called Explorations of Style
  3. Helpful resources by the University Writing Centre at Texas A&M University here.
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