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.

Writing To Be Read: Tips from a Freelance Journalist

Stacey Solie spoke to my lab group about writing for diverse audiences

Stacey Solie, a freelance journalist, spoke to my lab group about writing

As scientists, we are all writers. That is, we write. But we all know that the papers and reports that we produce have very specific, narrow audiences. For most of us, even our most cited papers are read by only a negligible fraction of the population. I suspect that many of us who aspire to write for broader audiences could use some advice—advice that will likely prove useful for scientific writing as well.

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based journalist and contributor to Weather.com, the New York Times, the Seattle Times, and the Daily Beast, and she got started writing as the creator and editor of the in-house Nature Conservancy newsletter, the Science Chronicles. She can write for diverse audiences. I met Stacey about eight years ago at a writing retreat hosted by The Nature Conservancy in wintery Millbrook, New York. I recently invited her to talk to my lab group at the University of Washington. She provided us with a plethora of suggestions, which I have boiled down into six tips.

1. Write first, edit later

If you are like me, you write a sentence, then you rewrite it. Then perhaps you write two more sentences. Then you go back and rework those three sentences—one step forward, three steps back. Solie suggests a powerful alternative—write first, edit later. Get it all out as fluidly as you can. It will be messy, it will be ugly, and it will be incomplete, but it will get the ideas down that you can work with later. Her advice reminded me of some offered to me by one of my postdoc advisors: write drunk, edit sober—probably not the best advice, particularly if you do a lot of writing. Solie’s advice is in the same spirit, but better for your liver.

2. Practice free writing, daily

Solie advocates freewriting.  Freewriting is exactly what it sounds like: one writes, well… freely, without regard for grammar, spelling, form, or even topic. Inspired by a book, Writing without Teachers, by Peter Elbow, Solie recommends doing a bit of freewriting every day. She assigns the graduate students in her Environmental Science Writing for Impact class at the University of Washington 15 minutes of daily freewriting. Solie does her daily freewriting by hand, and she writes about anything — food, life, what’s happening outside her window. Like other pursuits, the more you practice, the better you’ll become. While preparing to write on a specific topic, Solie recommends employing focused freewrites, which allow you to put questions and concerns on the page without judgement, and to pursue tangents and free-associate, which can help stimulate original thought.

3. Prime the pump

This one is somewhat radical.  Solie suggested treating the first draft of a piece as a practice run. Sit down and write a very rough draft, quickly and freely. Then put that draft aside and write an entirely new draft—without looking at the first. This can also be done on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Treating the first draft lightly instills confidence.  While the first words you jot down may not be the best, the idea is to trust that more and better words and sentences will come to you if you provide the opportunity by letting go and creating space.  I have to admit, I haven’t tried this one yet, but I want to.

4. Talk it out

It can help to discuss what you are writing with someone else. You may find that after telling someone what you are writing about, you have a firmer grasp on the matter yourself. Solie gave me a concrete example when I talked to her shortly after she returned from Darrington, Washington, where she was reporting on the Oso landslide. She talked me through the story she was working on and afterward noted that doing so had given her a bit more direction through the complex pile of leads and details she had amassed.

5. Keep a journal

Particularly if you plan on writing for nonscientific audiences, you will want to amass the fodder for good stories. Jot down details while you are in the field—the color of the sky, the sound of the river, the size of the bull moose that almost didn’t back down when you turned the corner to find him and his 6-foot rack blocking the trail. This stuff may come in handy.

6. Read good writers

This is advice we all likely give our students—read the literature and note how the really good papers are written. Not surprisingly, the same goes for popular writing. Solie gave my lab an excellent example to read—a piece by Robert Sapolsky.

These suggestions will not work for everyone—you need to find your own way to your voice. But I have found Solie’s tips to be useful for writing for both scientific audiences and for the general public.  And they have already helped my writing—believe it or not. What are your favorite writing tips?  Leave a comment.


Josh Lawler, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Follow him on the web and on Twitter @jjjlawler.