January 7, 2013

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

I just read that quote from Politics and the English Language:  “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”  And I thought, “Gee, that sounds like a lot of work.”  It also sounds like a recipe for paralysis (and yes, I do use that image deliberately).  Maybe that’s a good way to revise, but not to write.

I used to make college Freshman read that essay. They didn’t like it as much as I did.

I need to read the whole essay again, but what I remember most is how convincing Orwell is (especially if you already agree with him) that stale images will invade your writing.  The mind at rest falls into ready-made phrases and images.  That’s a nice way to live, but you can’t write that way.

But I like the way Marvin Mudrick said it better:  the metaphors you use unintentionally will ruin your writing.  (That’s a paraphrase, and I can’t find the quote.)  Also from Mudrick, the best writing advice ever:  “Do a good back flip.”