In addition to arguing against linguistic laziness, Orwell argues specifically for a writing process that encourages concision—that is, using as few words as possible to get a point across. Indeed, two of his proposed rules for good writing include: “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Underlining this argument is the idea that reality or facts (or thoughts, feelings, and experiences) are raw goods, and language is a way of processing those goods and presenting them to others. As a tool to represent reality, language helps people share the world. But, at the same time, language all too easily distances the mind from reality, obscuring truth behind vagueness and misleading euphemism. Put differently, words carry weight which inevitably creates space between the writer and the reality they seek to represent through language. For Orwell, concise prose is a prerequisite for honesty and truth because it essentially strips ideas bare; there is no obfuscation for lies to hide behind.
Orwell identifies several features of bad, dishonest writing. His analysis starts with features most indicative of unintentional dishonesty and ends with the most dangerous. He grapples first with “dying metaphors,” or “worn-out” phrases that, due to overuse, “[have] lost all evocative power,” like the much-used phrase “Achille’s heel.” He also points out how many phrases have been “twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact,” like how many writers use the incorrect phrase “tow the line” instead of “toe the line.” Orwell explains that dead metaphors often reveal that a writer was “composing in a hurry.” In this case, a well-intended writer may grab a dead metaphor to simply get words on a page. But, in a rush to repurpose ubiquitous phrases, that writer unknowingly slips into a spiral of dishonesty. For readers, “dying metaphors” alone may indicate laziness—not necessarily intentional dishonesty. For writers who want to stay close to the truth, though, Orwell recommends exercising caution when dealing with idioms and common phrases.
After discussing dying metaphors, Orwell turns to pretentious diction and operators. Operators, or verbal false limbs, refers to a preference of overcomplicated phrases over simple verbs, like saying “renders inoperative” instead of “break.” He then describes pretentious diction, or uselessly complicated and technical phrases used to “dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” Operators and pretentious diction both serve to gussy up bland prose, helping the author hide his laziness. Hence, these features involve a level of dishonesty. Further, in fluffing up prose with pretentious diction and operators, a lazy writer can lose sight of his own reality. To readers, the presence of these features indicate that the writer knows they’re spewing nonsense, which understandably makes readers weary. For writers, avoiding wordiness is key to avoiding fluffed up prose that can "blur" the edges of their reality.
Of all the features of vague writing that Orwell identifies, meaningless words are the most toxic. While meaningless phrases may appear in the less nefarious forms of dishonest writing (“particularly in art criticism and literary criticism”), meaningless words often indicate a more dangerous scam in action. Specifically, Orwell warns the readers against meaningless political words which are “almost always made with the intent to deceive.” To detect the presence of a meaningless word, readers should take extra care to make a note of words that lack a clear definition and have different meanings in different contexts. Writers should likewise exercise vigilance when dealing with abstract language, making sure to stay anchored to reality by asking themselves “What am I trying to say?” Words, especially needless ones, can create a “pad” between a writer and their truth. An unintentionally fraudulent writer loses his grip on reality through a haphazard writing process: he sets out to say one thing and, by incompetence or laziness, says another. Contrastingly, an intentionally fraudulent writer actively misleads his audience, using “vagueness and wordiness” as tools to “swindle” his audience. Orwell argues that wordiness litters a well-intended writer’s mind, “blurring” the edges of his reality.
While bad writing is characterized by stale metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words—a breeding ground for vagueness and dishonesty—good writing is characterized by one key thing: concision. The reason why concision is so important is that it lends itself well to honesty—writers can’t hide behind lofty prose or tired idioms and must instead directly face the truth they want to convey. From the outset, before any writing occurs, Orwell suggests writers spend more time concentrating on “concrete” reality. Writers should meditate on this “truth” before littering their mind with prose. When the writer finally does put pen to paper, Orwell recommends that writers take time to carefully select words that best represent the concrete facts they wish to communicate. He warns writers that, if they rely on being convincing rather than being correct, they will lose their grasp on the facts: “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” Orwell includes a handful of other tips to help writers write succinctly and honestly. For instance, he recommends that writers avoid passive voice and other wordy constructions, opt for shorter words when possible, stay away from unnecessary jargon, and don’t repeat the same old phrases they see in print. These tips are like a sieve that force writers to strain their work until they’re left with only the essence of what they want to convey, filtering out the bulky prose and unhelpful metaphors in the process. However, Orwell concedes that his suggestions aren’t foolproof, admitting that even he sometimes falls back on bad writing habits: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” The critical thing, Orwell stresses, is that writers maintain a continual effort to stay as close as possible to the truth.
Throughout his essay, Orwell takes shots at professional writers. He ridicules the poor writing of academics, activists, and governments—anyone he believes is more concerned with filling the page than making a clear and truthful point. He highlights the way that many writers muddy their ideas with impenetrable lofty diction, foggy words that lack clear meaning, and metaphors that have dulled with time. All of these things transform the writer’s ideas, intentionally or otherwise, into a thick swamp that the reader must trudge through in search of the truth—and only concision can cut through the muck.
Honesty, Truth, and Concision ThemeTracker
Honesty, Truth, and Concision Quotes in Politics and the English Language
The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line.’ Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better […] Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.
When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.