Saturday, March 25, 2023
Revisiting George Orwell and Good Writing
This semester, I am lucky enough to be teaching a seminar I designed on bias in legal analysis and writing. The class has been a delight, and I am impressed every week by my thoughtful and dedicated students.
In one of our sessions, I proposed using George Orwell’s writing rules, along with his broader concerns with “Doublespeak” and “Big Brother,” to add clarity and remove bias from writing. Several of my students have included these ideas in the class papers they are drafting, and I hope these tips help you draft as well.
In his pre-1984 essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell proposed six rules on using English, and he repeated these in later works as well. Many commentators have discussed using the rules for clarity, but I believe we can also combat bias with these ideas.
Here are Orwell’s rules, as summarized by Judith Fischer in her article Why George Orwell’s Ideas About Language Still Matter for Lawyers, 68 Mont. L. Rev. 129, 135 (2007):
(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.
See also Austin Wayne Schiess, Writing a Brief the George Orwell Way, 14 App. Advoc. 6, 6-6 (2001).
How can we use these rules in appellate writing?
- Avoid Cliches. Fischer notes: “Think out of the box” and “avoid cliches like the plague.” 68 Mont. L. Rev. at 137. But seriously, some cliches are racist and many are unclear. Remove them from your writing as much as possible.
- Prefer Shorter Words. I am old enough to remember when courts imposed motion and brief page limits, long before word limits. I recommend reading your own work as if you have page limits and word limits. This can help you remove legalese, redundant wording, and unneeded long terms. In his blog, Demian Farnworth suggests practicing by using only monosyllabic words. The monosyllabic approach can add many words and decrease clearness, but it is a fun way to practice writing with shorter terms. See https://copyblogger.com/short-sentences/ (Oct. 19, 2015).
3. Be Concise & 5. Avoid Jargon. (I’ve already blogged about Rule 4, Use Active Voice, often.) Use concision as an enemy of bias and obfuscation. As Justice Ginsburg reminded us, our readers “simply don’t have time to ferret out one bright idea buried in too long a sentence.” Remarks on Appellate Advocacy, 50 S.C. L. Rev. at 567 (1999). One way to practice being concise and removing jargon is by reviewing any manual for a small appliance in your home. Review these manuals for lengthy clauses and odd technical jargon. My family’s favorite is our toaster manual, which often uses five words where one will do, and adds confusing technical details like “LED light indicator surround ring” for what is in fact the “toasting” light. Finding these lengthy and confusing terms around the house will help you edit for concision in your briefing.
- Use Common Sense--Break Any of these Rules If they Reduce Clarity. Recently, I learned there is reasonable debate about exactly what Winston Churchill said regarding ending a sentence in a preposition. Nonetheless, we know he said something close to: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” See https://brians.wsu.edu/2016/11/14/churchill-on-prepositions/. We can follow our own common sense, like Churchill and Orwell. As another example, sometimes one longer clause reads better than a series of short, choppy sentences. Let’s follow rules on clarity above all else.
Are these rules enough? Orwell did not think so, as evidenced by his concern over “Doublespeak” and obfuscation. To follow Orwell, therefore, we should make sure our words say what we mean. While this sounds simple, any experienced appellate writer knows editing takes time and effort. I hope Orwell’s rules help in this editing task.