One of the great pitfalls of copywriting is becoming too accustomed to our own writing. After all, it’s far too easy to adopt an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. However, this attitude can lead to copy that ends up stale, trite and worst of all, lazy. If you’re eager whip your writing into shape, join Wordsmith to discover how the great English writer George Orwell (author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) kept his prose in line.
Traversing murky waters
In his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell begins by criticising passages written by key influencers at the time. Consider the first passage, from “Freedom of Expression”, by socialist Professor Harold Laski of the London School of Economics:
“I am not, indeed, sure, whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.”
While Laski was a brilliant mind in his field, he certainly wasn’t the most eloquent writer. Aside from using the word “not” five times in one sentence (it’s considered bad form to use multiple negatives at once), Laski’s overly lengthy sentence structure comes off as incoherent rambling.That’s not to say long copy is bad. On the contrary, having more context and information helps your audience see a broader picture and increases engagement. However, if readers are struggling to understand your point, you’ve already lost the game.
Consider this next passage Orwell selected from a communist pamphlet:
“All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains… have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells… to chauvinistic fervour on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.”
The above depicts a rather grim image of the writer’s political ideology, but despite the multitude of colourful words and adjectives (and this is after we’ve trimmed out some of the excess), the writer could have gotten his point across much more simply. As Orwell puts it, “the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.” So how should proper copy look – and more importantly, read?
Clearing the haze
Orwell identified four “unforgivable” writing sins:
Operators or verbal false limbs
A “dying metaphor” is one that has been used to the point of beating a dead horse (pun intended). As copywriters, we frequently come across company and corporate websites full of dead and decaying phrases. How many times have you come across “break down the silos”? Although this phrase was once the pinnacle of corporate identity and tone, the fact that everyone (and their mother) used it has greatly diminished its value and purpose. “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically dead has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness,” writes Orwell.
Operators or verbal false limbs are phrases that “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables” – like give rise to or have the effect of. Orwell finds these phrases problematic because they add unnecessary verbiage to a sentence. Furthermore, using false limbs often puts sentences into a passive tone of voice – essentially making the subject of your sentence less clear to readers. In many cases, a simple verb can provide a more effective and precise alternative.
Orwell had a rather broad list of words that he found pretentious, ranging from scientific-related diction like phenomenon, element or categorical, to everyday words like promote, constitute or exhibit. While these words aren’t bad per se, they are often misused by writers attempting to “dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” Orwell’s previous point on operators and verbal false limbs is equally applicable here – if there is an easier word available, use it to avoid “slovenliness and vagueness”.
In line with Orwell’s distaste for the unnecessary, he found certain adjectives to be meaningless when used in the context of art and literary criticism, such as romantic, human or dead. Orwell pointed out that we’ve been conditioned to accept these terms as opinions – despite the fact that they do not “point to any discoverable object” and are “hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.” What does it mean for a sculpture to possess a certain liveliness or deadness to it? Could we use more precise term so that someone who doesn’t share the same opinion would also understand it? Perhaps a vivid description of the sculpture’s intricate posture or facial expression would be more valuable.
While it is human nature to seek easier ways of doing things, excessive verbiage and overused phrases are simply signs of lazy copywriting. With the Lunar New Year symbolising a period of change and cleanliness, this is the perfect time to learn from Orwell and sharpen our writing. Or if you’d rather put it off as a resolution for the next new year, your friendly neighbourhood copywriters will always be happy to lend a helping hand.