Reading George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is like having a bucket of ice-cold water thrown in your face. Cleansed of old vitriolic habits, I feel I can now begin my academic career anew, just as a surprise showering of water rids the body of collected dirt and grime.
I’ve always struggled with writing even though I love it so much. I know what kind of writer I want to be but I’ve no idea how to get there. Thoughts and ideas fly around my head like a swarm of gnats on a muggy afternoon. I never have any idea where to begin, where to end, and how to link the beginning and the end together. Often I’ll come up with some profound word or statement that just sounds good and I’ll look for a way to fit it in. A terrible habit, I know. That method can be equated with constructing a tower top to bottom.
Then came along possibly the greatest writing tutorial in existence – Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. All those generic writing aid books can be tossed out the window and burned for all I care. When it comes to mastering my personal voice, these are the words I am going to swear by. It’s not often a person comes across a new academic religion, the holiest of scholarly manuscripts. The day I read this essay was a momentous day – should I celebrate simply by marking my calendar or with a trip to the bookstore to buy a cheap read (Orwellian, of course)? Borders is going out of business, after all.
This might be the part where a good writer goes into why Orwell’s essay is so great, so I think I’ll do just that. His basic argument is that Modern writing is devoid of vivid, clear imagery and meaningful precision. He says that an unfortunate trend in Modern writing is the use of clichéd metaphors, meaningless words, and roundabout phrases that dilute meaning and make the author’s message so unclear that it is reduced to utter worthlessness. Modern writers use empty words to illustrate abstractions they themselves don’t understand, so how could the reader understand them (this is coming from a girl who essentially failed her English midterm about pre-Modern writing, so what chance do I have of understanding the mindless drivel that Orwell condemns)?
But correctly assaulting Modern writing isn’t even the best part! True to his word, Orwell tells me very clearly what bad writing is and what good writing is. He provides lists! Examples! Some humor! Gorgeous, simple language and imagery! (such gems include “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity” and “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”) He adds some captivating political-linguistic theory that I wouldn’t understand had some other Modern author wrote about it. But not with George. I’ve never found any piece of writing so accessible and relevant. I am not even going to call it “a breath of fresh air” because that is the type of hackneyed phrase that Orwell outlaws – a true sign that there is hope for me yet!
I am not sure if saying that “Politics and the English Language” has changed my life is an understatement or a cliché in itself. A conclusion like that takes time and a lot of writing practice. But some things are certain: I directly benefit from his helpful and applicable writing tips, I understand his ideas about the relationship between the degradation of language and political manipulation, I find his words thought-provoking and just as true today as they were in 1946, and I’ve finally discovered my literary savior. Finally someone has thrown out a line for me, a college sophomore, who is drowning in a sea of words.