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7 Indispensable Writing Tips from Orwell to Ogilvy to Strunk & White


1) Avoid the use of qualifiers. (Strunk & White)

In an interview with Brian Williams, Edward Snowden said, “I have no relationship with the Russian government at all.” Imagine if Snowden said, “I have no relationship with the Russian government.” Which sentence sounds more convincing? “The fact that Snowden made the strange and categorical insistence that they have no relationship at all…” Vox.com reports, “raises questions about why he would assert something so implausible.”

Rather, very, little, pretty, fairly, at all. Avoid these words. A sentence should speak for itself. Most qualifiers are counterproductive.

2) Avoid the ambiguous “this.” (Strunk & White)

The word “this” should always refer to something.

I have trouble remembering the password for my computer. When this occurs, I have to call IT and ask for help.

I have trouble remembering the password for my computer. When this problem occurs, I have to call IT and ask for help.

This is difficult to remember. Ahem! This rule is difficult to remember.

3) Use instead of utilize. (Strunk & White)

A pet peeve of a professor I had in college. The word “use” can almost always replace “utilize.” Utilize sounds clunky and industrial.

4) Never use the passive where you can use the active. (Orwell)

A classic. Eliminating passive voice will improve your writing. Unfortunately, this is forgotten by most writers. Ahem!!! Most writers forget this rule.

5) Do not explain too much. (Strunk & White)

A good writer writes just enough and lets the reader make his own discoveries. As La Rochefoucauld quipped, “As great minds have the ability to say much in few words, so, conversely, small minds have the gift of talking much and not saying anything.”

6) If it is possible to cut a word, cut it (Orwell)

What sounds better?

I read this profile of Nassim Taleb in the New Yorker¸ where writer Malcolm Gladwell followed Taleb as part of a larger project to understand lucrative hedge funds and their inner workings.


Malcolm Gladwell profiled Nassim Taleb in the New Yorker to understand how hedge-funds work.

7) Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass. (Ogilvy) 

In other words, don’t write like the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, who won an award for bad writing with this sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.


Still Interested? Check out A Communication Tip From a Legendary Screenwriting Coach.      

Sources: Brain Pickings (Ogilvy) and Politics and The English Language (Orwell)

Image via Flickr/mpclemens

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Books Mentioned in this Post

The Unpublished David Ogilvy

The Unpublished David Ogilvy by David Ogilvy & Miles Young

The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style by E.B. White & William Strunk