To Room 101 with you! Orwell’s six rules of simple English

Working as an instructional designer is a very logical thing for a student of English. There’s plenty of reading, for a start, and the variety of material is a great way of keeping your literacy razor sharp. But there’s often the temptation to lapse into Modern Business Jargon (let’s call it MBJ). For example, starting an email with..

‘Dear Whatsit,
Please find attached for your review…’

Or ending with..

‘…and this, going forward, should ensure that project timescales are adhered to.
Kind regards,
Etc. etc.’

What’s really funny is that when you speak to someone who does this, they are – more often than not – not actually in the employ of Q Branch or some other excessively jargonistic and bureaucratic cobwebbed corner of central government.

So why does seating people in front of Outlook give them this bizarre elevation of style? And why does it creep into our work? As an instructional designer, I make it my daily crusade to weed out these little glimpses of the highfalutin author in us all. But why ask me when we can go back and read some Orwell instead? So here are six top tips for your writing, in a small (but heartfelt) homage to George.

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

Fairly self-explanatory. I’d summarise this one as ‘NO CLICHÉS PLEASE (WE’RE BRITISH)’.

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

At a recent workshop at BT, I learned that it’s okay to use words like ‘get’ (instead of ‘obtain’), ‘do’ (instead of ‘perform’) and ‘add’ (instead of ‘integrate’).

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

A good example from Moira: ‘Please accept my apologies for this oversight.’ Why not just ‘sorry for the mistake’? Personally, if I had to first of all suffer the inconvenience of a costly mistake, the last thing I’d want to do is waste 30 seconds of time getting to the point of a long-winded apology. Brevity is… wit.

4. Never use the passive when you can use the active.

Ever find yourself writing something along the lines of ‘this is usually actioned by the client management team’? Try using ‘the client team usually does this’. It gets the point across much more clearly and succinctly. Across a half-hour course, ten passive-to-active revisions can have a huge impact on its overall legibility.

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

This is one of my favourites – when writing a course for an English audience, write in English. Sounds obvious, but in actual fact, using words with the English roots rather than (say) Latin ones, can make a course easier to read because it will scan better. For example, use ‘ask’ (actually a word with its root in West Germanic) instead of ‘inquire’. An important thing to remember, especially if you are writing for a wide audience.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Aha, the ‘sense-check’ at the end. Ultimately, the choice of language will rest with you and your own understanding of what you are writing and what message you need to convey. There’s no sense in wasting time reinventing the wheel and trying to find an English equivalent for ‘Schadenfreude’.

Here are a few links to get you started on your own voyage of rediscovering the simple English language: