Writing with Precision

George Orwell is perhaps best known for 1984, his scathing indictment of totalitarianism. Just two months before its publishing in 1949, he published an equally biting essay about the English language.

The essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has been widely read since its publication, and for good reason. In it, Orwell eviscerates the state of language in general, but especially when it comes to politics.

His basic concern is the vagueness of modern speaking and writing, and how that obscurity shapes the public. Words, after all, have power, as he wrote in 1984: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Though some words have the power to corrupt one’s thinking, others can cleanse one’s thinking. The right words can purify the thoughts. Then those right thoughts train the mind to discern what is good (see Rom. 12:2).

BARRIERS TO PRECISE WRITING

Two of the biggest barriers to writing that purifies readers’ minds are the same two Orwell bemoans in the political writing of his day: staleness of imagery and lack of precision. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it,” Orwell laments, “or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

When we’re trying to express the mysteries of God, we sometimes lack the words to express divine realities and unwittingly say something else entirely. Hopefully we aren’t indifferent to the meaning of our words, but this too can creep in when we’re on a deadline or struggling to find something to write about.

So how can we avoid falling into these traps?

SIX QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT EACH SENTENCE

Fortunately, Orwell wrote six questions writers should ask themselves about each sentence they write:

  • What am I trying to say?

  • What words will express it?

  • What image or idiom will make it clearer?

  • Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

  • Could I put it more shortly?

  • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

These are fantastic questions for writers whose aim is to point people to Jesus. Answering them well makes for writing that is clear, concise, powerful, and beautiful.

SIX RULES FOR PRECISE WRITING

Along with his questions, Orwell also has six general rules to help writers be as clear and as interesting as possible:

  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, cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive [voice] 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. [This is also true for theological or “Christianese” terms. Always try to say something that someone with little or no knowledge of Scripture could understand, or at least illustrate or describe biblical themes or doctrines.]

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

THE POWER OF WORDS

The dual premise in Orwell’s statement—"if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”—is that words have the power to shape thoughts, and thoughts have the power to shape our words.

This makes writers shapers of thought, and it means we writers—especially those who write to spread the glory of Christ—need to understand the power we wield and use it wisely.


Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of four and the Managing Web Editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing check out his website or follow him on Twitter.