Why it’s ok that I’m not George Orwell

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell advocates the following writing principle:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

87 years before Orwell wrote this essay, Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. Here’s an excerpt:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

It’s pretty safe to say that Orwell would not be a fan of Dicken’s 119-word sentence. But does this make the sentence “bad”?

In regards to verbosity, it’s clear these two authors exist on different sides of the spectrum. Verbosity is one key component of style, and therefore this gaping difference in verbosity causes the authors to write with very different styles. And while some readers might prefer certain styles, there is no “correct” style of writing. Style is a fascinating grey area; some genres lend themselves better to certain genres, but in the end there is no concrete formula for each genre. This is why I found the Style Masquerade activity so interesting.

The author I emulated for this activity was George Orwell. I quickly realized that he writes with an extremely concise and to-the-point style. He doesn’t use flowery metaphors – or really even metaphors in general – and seems to avoid wordiness in every sentence. As I read more about his style, I began to feel embarrassed about my own style, which is more like Dickens than Orwell. While I try not to be unnecessarily wordy in my writing, I do tend to utilize long words and long sentences. The more I read Orwell, the more I thought “Wow, my writing is horrible; I’m breaking many of his six famous rules for writing.”

However, as I reflect more on this activity, I’ve come to realize that style is a very personal aspect of writing. Many people consider George Orwell to be a great writer, but this doesn’t mean I should try to be George Orwell. The activity was meant to expose us to different writing styles, so we can start thinking about our own style. And while we shouldn’t try to copy other writers, it’s certainty reasonable to evaluate how different elements of their style fit together. Orwell has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the choices he makes in regards to style (reflected in his 6 rules), and the biggest takeaway from this activity has been that I should do the same. In the future, I plan to spend more time reflecting on my style on a macro level, and this will hopefully jump-start my writing development as I navigate the Sweetland minor.

2 thoughts to “Why it’s ok that I’m not George Orwell”

  1. Jacob, the title you chose for this post drew me in immediately. While George Orwell isn’t my favorite author or anything (I’ve only read 1984), I always enjoy reading things about famous writers. Fortunately for me, your post was indeed actually something about Orwell (and Dickens), instead of just a small mention – a name drop, if you will. In this stylistic argument, I definitely fall on the same end of the spectrum as Dickens. I’m all for a straight-to-the-point, cutthroat sentence now and then – especially for emphasis – but I tend to write wordy, lengthier sentences. I am also guilty as charged in the realm of semi-colons and hyphens, the former of which, had I been Dickens, I would have employed in that 119-word sentence you included from his book. I realize that not everybody appreciates a paragraph-length sentence, but I typically find them to be impressive when done right. It seems like “concise” is the name of the game these days, but I don’t really believe in that. As you said, style is a personal aspect of writing. Just because someone deems your sentence too long, or too wordy, or too semi-colon-y, doesn’t mean it really is, or that you should care about their opinion because you stand by your belief that it couldn’t sound better any other way. It comes down to perspective, and everyone’s is different.

  2. Jacob, I think you propose a really great idea here – that just because a famous writer said that one way is the right way, doesn’t mean it actually is. There will always be a multitude of authors telling us that their way is the way we should all write, when that may not be true. I love your sentiment that writing and style are personal and that the rules of writing are up for interpretation. I also really like that you included this famous Dickens quote directly in your blog post, despite the fact that many readers might have already read it; it really emphasizes your point to see it taking up a lot of space on the page.

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