Orwell’s seventh rule – focus on the message

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

George Orwell’s six rules for good writing are often quoted. They contain good sense advice such as “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” and “Never use a long word where a short one would do”.

In investment research, which often has to appeal to diverse audiences, reminders to keep things simple and unpretentious are valuable.

There is a seventh piece of advice in that same essay that is much less quoted. Orwell also said “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear”. This might be blasphemy for some, but it is crucial as a reminder of what is important.

A good piece of writing conveys its meaning as clearly and fluently as possible. Enforcing rules therefore is important if it helps that, but they shouldn’t necessarily be imposed for their own sake. It is crucial to remember what they are for – to provide a common framework for understanding.

However, not only are they often rules of thumb that have morphed into hard and fast rules because of an arbitrary authority (eg Webster) but they are changing constantly with usage.

Writing “And” at the beginning of a sentence used to be a serious offence. However, it has long ceased to be enforced without loss of meaning. We now also see “Which” and “So” at the beginning of sentences, and the sky has not fallen in.

Writers should therefore feel free to be flexible with the rules if they no longer help them to achieve clarity. Imposing rules the way an algorithm would cannot take into account the needs of the context or shifts in use.

In the absence of a central authority policing language, the users of the language must be the police. And they must always remember that the message is key. A good editor can help you navigate this terrain.