One rule for good writing
Writing is Darwinian not Newtonian
Since I hate Orwell’s writing rules so much, and in preparation for my debate about those rules with Robert Cottrell, I have been thinking about what writing rules, if any, I would agree with. One of my objections to Orwell is that there are no true rules of writing because language is Darwinian not Newtonian: it is not a fixed system; it changes as you use it.
People defend Orwell on the basis that his rules can produce good work. Maybe. But a rule has to be more widely applicable than that to meet the adaptability of all the situations language works in. In many many situations Orwell’s rules are no more necessary than made up rules like “you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’”.
There is no golden ladder of writing with corner-shop signs at the bottom and Milton at the top. If Milton wrote advertising copy, he’d stink. His writing style wouldn’t fit the purpose.
That therefore is the one rule that I think you can usefully apply. Good writing meets its purpose. Or, good writing meets the requirement of its medium, mode, or genre.
Isn’t a lot of what we consider bad writing really quite good for its purposes? Agatha Christie lacks grace as a prose stylist but she’s a bloody good writer as a mystery novelist. To say she cannot match Milton for syntax, vocabulary, subtlety and so on is true, but is not the same as saying she’s a worse writer than him. One reason Samuel Johnson was a great writer was his ability to write all sorts of different things: sermons, adverts, essays, poems, fiction, dictionaries.
An awful lot of writing advice tries to go beyond this, insisting on one sort of style. Most so-called rules are really just style guides pretending that one style is better than another.
Ignore them. Instead, look for techniques you can use to adapt your writing as circumstances require.
If you are interested in attending my debate with Robert, please either reply to this email or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Places are filling up but we have room for a few more on the list. Once final details are confirmed we’ll be in touch about location and timings. Robert will be talking about why Orwell’s rules help produce decent writing. I will be arguing they lead to Newspeak.
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You are right about it being Darwinian. Cicero said, "The rules follow from eloquence, not the other way around." Good rhetoric is what works, what fits the purpose.
I completely agree with you. In fact, one of the things the best teacher I've ever had taught me is precisely to adapt my writing to the circumstances. To write in whatever way is best for the story in question and to take into account that I can't always apply what I've learned from writing it to the next thing I write.