Nuts and bolts and good old words

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Hmm… Which one should I choose?

I always knew there were two things to writing: writing and promoting. But like many who write, I thought if I did the first, the second would take care of itself. Not so – as I’m now discovering. So this blog will cover both aspects, from the point of view of someone learning how it all works. Which means I have no pretensions to offer advice of my own – whatever I know has been learnt from other people. So I’ll always acknowledge my sources, and I apologise in advance if what I say seems obvious to some. If that’s the case, so much the better – it simply means you’ve thought about it already.

The writing first – promoting will be for another post. And because this is a record of my personal journey, I’ll start with what I read years ago, and have tried to follow ever since: George Orwell’s rules for effective writing (from Politics and The English Language, 1946).

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Will Self thinks these rules have resulted in an ‘Orwellian language police’. But compare a text by Self with one by Orwell and make your choice. I know where I stand on the matter.

It’s not always easy to follow the rules, especially in the first draft. Rule (i), for example, refers to figures of speech we’re used to reading, and because we’re used to them, they come to us easily. It’s what linguists call the frequency effect – the more often a word, or combination of words, occurs in the language, the easier it is to access in our minds, both in comprehension and production. And then they become clichés, which no longer amaze the reader the way original word combinations do. Of course, in a novel, not all words can startle – that would be pretty tiring after a while. But in poetry, for example, yes – that ‘Wow!’ effect is part of what makes a great poem great.

But we’re not too worried anyway about the first draft. It’s just a way to get the ideas down. It’s on the second, third and nth drafts that I try to bear the rules in mind. And it’s not just fiction Orwell is talking about, but all written texts. Including blogs? In our 1984, they didn’t exist, and in his 1984, they wouldn’t have been allowed (except for propaganda). But although we don’t have the time to submit our posts to umpteen drafts, even a quick revision, applying those simple rules, can bring about some improvement.

So there you go – my first post on the nuts and bolts of writing. And now you know who you’re dealing with: a highfaluting, grandiloquent, Orwellian bobby on the beat 🙂

Finally, today’s blogging 101 assignment. Naturally I’m attracted to blogs that have similar aims and content, so here are a couple of links to ones I follow, the first having already self-published and the second thinking seriously about it. Two other blogs I like for their content, the first for its original perspective (an Indian in Doha), the second for its humorous, entertaining accounts of daily life. Which isn’t to say there’s not a lot more out there which is interesting and inspiring – there is! And I’ll get round to mentioning others I’ve come across, I promise 🙂

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23 thoughts on “Nuts and bolts and good old words

  1. Hi – Well I know which I would chose out of Orwell or Self and it certainly isn’t Self 🙂 I’m close to publication now of my book and have learnt as I go along just how much promotion is involved, whether you are independently or traditionally-publishing. Marketing marketing marketing – it’s almost a full-time job! Looking forward to hearing more about your writing.

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  2. Thank you so much Curtis. I’m honored you think my blog worth linking to! This is a very informative post for writers – good rules for writing. I always try to make my first draft perfect – which tends to make that first-draft-writing a long process. I’m trying hard to get rid of that nasty habit. 😉

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    • You’re welcome, Elle, I find your blog very instructive. I guess writing’s bound to be a long process, so perhaps the time you put into the first draft, you save on the second. Maybe it’s not such a bad habit if it works for you. All the best.

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  3. Thank you! This is a very helpful post. Because English isn’t my native language I tend to sometimes fall into cliches. Simply because those are the words that come easily to my mind. However, I am used to reading more, I don’t know difficult I’d say for a non-native speaker, texts, so it is not as if I have a hard time understanding. It is good to have some rules to help you on the way.

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  4. This post is gold for me! I will read it again and will try to use the rules to improve my writing in English [most of the times is plane]. I would like to avoid the “white wall” in my mind when want to say/write something I consider meaningful. Thanks.

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  5. Thank you so much Curtis ! I’m honoured to be mentioned along with such great blogs 🙂
    You are one fine writer yourself, and your blog is increasingly becoming more informative and inspirational…
    (Incidentally I’m sitting in London now, and reading your post, :D) I must come back to this post again, and next time with my unfinished draft in hand. Looking forward to learn more of the nuts and bolts soon…

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