From time to time, people email me for writing advice. I assure you, I am the wrong person to ask. The best writing advice comes from the giants, the legends, the authors you have to read in high school and should have read in college except you did not, preferring to do jell-o shots. Did you ever ask yourself, “But what would Willa Cather think??” Yeah, me neither.
One of the best writers of the last twenty or thirty years, in my view, was the late Christopher Hitchens. Whatever you think about his life, lifestyle, or politics, the man was so good at writing that when I read him, I am equally depressed and encouraged. I’m depressed because I am so bad at writing, comparatively; I am encouraged because words and sentences can be just that good.
Hitchens was a huge fan of George Orwell; he spoke of him often and wrote a lengthy biographical essay about him, which of course is awesome. You know Orwell: he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm (one or both of which you surely had to read in high school.) It was Hitchens who reminded me of how important and great Orwell is/was, so some years ago, I went after Orwell, myself. I re-read Animal Farm (dude) and did some Internet reading about him, too. Paydirt was hit, however, when I discovered Orwell’s five rules for writing. I actually did a piece on this for the Chicago “Salonathon” show and that can be found here.
Orwell’s writing rules changed my life. I’ll just toss out the first one tonight. Go find the others yourself if you’re interested: they are worth printing out and sticking to your forehead if you have any writerly aspirations. Orwell’s first rule is: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
You may not, therefore, ever, ever write any sentence like the ones below.
1. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” she said, shrugging.
2. I like long walks on the beach.
3. Though Mayor Brown was reluctant, never say never: he’ll be tossing his hat into the presidential race this year.
I was reminded of the pain of ignoring Orwell’s first rule the other night at Washington Reagan baggage check. It wasn’t a written example (except that it is now.) A man saw a woman struggling to retrieve a heavy piece of luggage from the carousel. He got in there, lifted the bag with one arm, and set it down. The woman thanked him and as she walked away, wheeling her bag, this lady near me chirped, “I guess chivalry isn’t dead!”
Did she hear the tiny wheeze I wheezed when I heard her say that? Her comment was so dead, so flat, so totally banal, it was my involuntary reaction. She’s a nice woman. She knew not what she did. And I’m not the word police. But chivalry is, in fact, dead. The way we use the term in our time is like, the fourth definition listed in the dictionary. Language is fluid and bendy, I know, I know. But wouldn’t it be more dynamic to say/write, “Well, that was a nice thing to do,” or, “Is he single?”
Again, this advice is not coming from me. Even making suggestions based in Orwell’s advice makes me nervous. I’m sure actual writers will chuckle as they read this post, seeing entire paragraphs to cut and sentences that are the dog’s breakfast.
That’s exactly why I go over and over these rules. At least I’m trying, you know?