George Orwell Asks the New Republic: Where’s the Rest of Me?

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George Orwell might wonder what happened to his six suggestions for writing well.

By Jack Limpert

As part of its 100th anniversary celebration, the New Republic is posting some of its most memorable articles. The latest, billed as “George Orwell’s Brilliant Guide to Writing Well,” is Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which appeared in the June 17, 1946, issue of the New Republic.

I looked forward to rereading the essay because for 30 years the Washingtonian magazine’s Notes for Writers has included this advice:

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell pointed to these sins of bad writing: “Staleness of imagery . . . lack of precision . . . the concrete melts into the abstract . . . a lack of simple verbs.” Some of Orwell’s suggestions:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that 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 jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

As I finished the New Republic’s version of “Politics and the English Language,” I had one of those “I think I really screwed up” moments—something that happens to editors more than people might think. The New Republic version of the Orwell essay talks about dying metaphors and meaningless words but had I taken Orwell’s elegant essay and translated it into six dumbed-down suggestions to help Washington writers write better? I read the New Republic’s version a second time, tried to deal with the disconnect between Orwell’s prose and my notes for writers, and wondered if I’d have to tell the Washingtonian to clarify or correct its notes for writers.

After a restless night’s sleep, I Googled the essay and found another version of it. As I read this version, posted on the Mount Holyoke College website, what seemed clear was that in 1946 the New Republic had published 3,000 words of Orwell’s essay, first published in England, and cut off the rest of it. The full essay runs 5,000 words and includes this wisdom that does not appear in the New Republic version of the essay:

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But 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:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

So, we might ask those New Republic editors of 1946, did the magazine’s publisher say, as publishers are known to do, “The stories are too damn long” and the editors then simply ended the Orwell essay at 3,000 words, chopping off the last 2,000 words and some of the best parts?

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