Saturday, October 14, 2006

"Never use a metaphor ... that you are used to seeing in print"

I shall have to add this collection of essays to my Amazon.com wish list. Here is Lawrence Wright discussing George Orwell's guide to writing, via NPR:
Orwell optimistically sets forward six simple rules to improve the state of the English language: guidelines that anyone, not just professional writers, can follow.

But I'm not going to tell you what they are. You'll have to re-read the essay yourself. I'm only going to speak about Rule No. 1, which is never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.

For me, that's the hardest rule and no doubt the reason that it's No. 1. Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose. We are still plagued by toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, no axe to grind -- meaningless images that every reader subconsciously acknowledges represent the opposite of real thought -- but it is dismaying to read that two exhausted metaphors, leave no stone unturned and explore every avenue, had been jeered out of common usage in Orwell's day by journalists who took the trouble to dismiss them.

"Political language," Orwell reminds us, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits."

Orwell wasn't interested in decorative writing, but his straightforward, declarative style has a snap in it that few other writers have ever approached. In a time when politics and the English language once again seem to be at odds, perhaps his essay can make us remember that clarity is the remedy.

4 Comments:

Blogger Chuck said...

Man, oh, man, wouldn't it be a breath of fresh air if politicians actually did say what they meant. I have never been able to pin down anything Trent Lott said to anything of substance.
Chuck

7:53 PM  
Blogger Publia said...

Good advice, but I do find that mostly I blog in glittering generalities, tired metaphors, and silly similies. Oh, and I never met a cliche I didn't like. I feel a special mission for breathing new life into worn-out phrases. Using all of these no-no's (see, already a tired phrase) makes me feel cutting edge and somewhat revolutionary. Many people write unusually well. Why try to compete?

10:16 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

In many ways, Southerners have their own language. We use a lot of sayings which you may have noticed in some of my comments and posts.

Things like "taking off like a scalded dog", or "hanging around like a blind dog on a meat wagon", or "smells like a French whore in an elevator" tend to just pop out of a Southerners mouth.

I personnaly like the color of that kind of graphic language. There usually no doubt what it means and many times it will bring a laugh to a serious conversation.
Chuck

11:05 AM  
Blogger copy editor said...

As with any "rule" on good writing, there are clear examples when violating the rule is better writing than complying with the rule.

7:57 PM  

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