When it comes to writing on-line (personal or corporate), I'm very much on the opposite end of the spectrum of the traditional PR and Marketing approaches. They generally involve hype, big words, and lots of flowery language that doesn't actually say anything.

When it comes to providing someone a list of simple rules to avoid doing that, I look to the famous George Orwell's excellent essay Politics and the English Language, written in 1946. Much of it is still very, very relevant today.

His six rules are a nice summary of the advice given earlier in the essay:

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

Of those, I think #2 through #5 are the most important. But with technical writing, it's often necessary to "break" rule #5 simple because you know your audience has the necessary knowledge.

If you're bored, take a random press release and try running it thru the filter of rules #2, #3, and #4. I suspect you'll end up with something far shorter, more clear, and just as informative.

Posted by jzawodn at September 13, 2004 03:37 PM

Reader Comments
# Evan said:

I thought it was a fine essay the first time I read it too. Although the closing sentence is a bit amusing. Of the "worn-out and useless phrase(s)" he that he wanted us to get rid of, five out of the six are still in common usage sixty years later.

on September 13, 2004 05:55 PM
# Charles said:

Let me apply a blue Editor's pen. Orwell would approve.

#2-3, 24 words

substitute 6 words:

"Brevity is the soul of wit."
-Mark Twain

on September 13, 2004 06:02 PM
# Al said:

Pretty good rules, I think. When I was in school, everybody (ESPECIALLY the professors) loved to "show off" in their writings by going on and on, using big words, being obtuse, and so on. PhD's are the worst - they really pile it higher and deeper.

on September 13, 2004 07:53 PM
# Mike Manuel said:

You could argue that Orwell's essay was heavily influenced by William Strunk's Elements of Style (1918). In fact, every good journalist and for that matter, any good PR person, will have a copy of this book on their desk. It's a pity more folks don't use it...

on September 13, 2004 09:32 PM
# Micah said:

Speaking of writing concisely, I recently ran across this gem of a post on writing e-mails.

on September 14, 2004 04:14 AM
# TDavid said:

Strunk pounding his fist on the desk: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

on September 14, 2004 08:25 AM
# Aaron Schaub said:

I spent the last four years basically writing for a living. Surprisingly, this post made me really think about the value of clear writing for the first time. Perhaps it's more important than we all realize.


on September 14, 2004 06:12 PM
# TomRowton said:

If you've ever spent an hour or more trying to work out the clearly faulty instruction sheet for some piece of furniture made in a Third World nation only to give up and just guess what goes where, it is painfully obvious how important clear writing is.

Software and hardware manuals are even worse, but are less important to me, since I'm a geek. I can figure it out. I'm not a furniture assembler, so I notice those more often.

I don't even want to get into politics. There be dragons.

on September 15, 2004 08:12 AM
# Dirk said:

Some people will never get it. Orwell got it.

on September 15, 2004 10:24 AM
# Kartik Agaram said:

Charles: The quote is by Shakespeare. There's a whole world on the other side of that ocean, you know :p

on September 15, 2004 09:50 PM
# Randall said:

> Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Steve McConnell says that variable names in your code should "refer to the real-world problem rather than to the programming-language solution." Seems like a tight fit.

(needs registration)

on September 22, 2004 03:04 AM
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