Why I Write – Or What We Can All Learn from George Orwell

George Orwell

Sixty years later, George Orwell’s advice rings true for expressing complex ideas in a clear, compelling way.

In June 2013 my cohort of Leopold Fellows were given our marching orders: spend a year practicing skills to move from knowledge to action. I watched my fellow fellows take steps to shape the future of agriculture, transportation, and fisheries. For better or worse, I’ve been learning to write essays.

I came to this decision after reading a series of pieces by George Orwell written in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Anyone grappling with public speech – tweets, Congressional testimony, whatever – will find Orwell’s words worth a look.

First, he sums up his, my (and perhaps your?) motivations for public expression:

“four great motives … exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time  … They are: Sheer egoism… aesthetic enthusiasm… historical impulse… political purpose.”

Why do I write? Aesthetic enthusiasm is probably last, but that’s not true for all scientist-writers. Aaron Hirsh, a Ph.D biologist turned author, just published Telling Our Way to the Sea about the biology and people of the Gulf of California. Its carefully crafted and beautiful prose is both literary science writing and scientific literature. But for me the content of the story is more important than exactly how it’s told. And I definitely have a political purpose. Beautiful prose would be nice, but it is not my goal – I want to inform, inspire, and ultimately convince people to change the way they run the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, tweets may stimulate discussion and expose us to interesting ideas in the blink of an eye. That said, the idea of coming up with a pithy 140 characters leaves me cold. I’ve tried. It’s not me.

But the essay – that dinosaur – has always had a place in my heart. David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo introduced me to ecology and conservation biology. My mother regaled us with excerpts in Stephen J. Gould’s monthly Natural History pieces long before I had ever heard of evolution.

For my purpose, I think essays are actually good venue. They are short enough to be readable, long enough to be interestingly complex. Avoiding environmental catastrophe requires recognition of complexity, and it requires people to be interested enough to pay attention. It also requires passion. The persistence of The New YorkerThe Atlantic Monthly, and similar publications tells me that there are people — perhaps many people — who are willing to grapple with complexity, if it is presented compellingly enough. Perhaps if I can master the essay, my passion for the cause will be infectious.

So lesson number one, from my year, from Orwell: choose the right medium for the message and messenger.

The bigger trick is mastering it. Here Orwell has advice that is remarkably up to date, and fully in line with our Leopold training:

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

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

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

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

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

More than 50 years before the message box, he warned:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? … You can shirk it [your job] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you…and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

If this seems abstract, here’s one of his examples of good versus bad writing. Which one has conveyed the moral imperative for society to look after the unfortunate for the past 2000 years? Which sounds more like the last paper any of us just published?

From Ecclesiastes:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And Orwell’s rendition in “modern” language (1946):

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomenon compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

So lesson number two: the next time you want to convey something important to an audience that really matters to you, channel Orwell. His advice is sound across the intervening decades. Letting him have the last word:

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

Stephen Porder, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology and a fellow in the Institute for the Study of Environment and Society at Brown University.

3 thoughts on “Why I Write – Or What We Can All Learn from George Orwell

  1. Thanks for this wonderful reminder Steve. I read Orwell’s essay as a freshman in college and it made a huge impression. Hopefully, I have been able to channel some of it into my book to be published this September. For me, a strong motivator is the challenge of aesthetic enthusiasm while making the complex comprehensible. There are plenty of people out there who are interested in getting into the depths of issues beyond the tweets.

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