What can you learn about writing from George Orwell and Frank Luntz?

The short answer is a lot. The long answer is below.

I have a piece of paper on my desk (well it is currently buried under a few articles I am writing and a list of things to do) that I constantly reference anytime I am starting an article or editing an article, or even when I am writing these posts here.

Language Lessons from Frank Luntz and George Orwell
Want to be a better writer? You can’t go wrong with these ten tips.
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It is language lessons from two books and an essay that I read a few years ago, Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, Words that Work by Dr. Frank Luntz, and the essay Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Here are ten language lessons from these great authors and one tip that changed my writing forever. They apply to all types of writing: blog posts, newsletters, sales copy, emails (click here for more on how not to suck at email), even love notes!

  1. Don’t Bury the Lead. The lead is the most important, simply stated point of the article or page. Make it the first thing your readers see. Don’t make the mistake of “building up to it.” Give them the best part first and then give them a reason to keep on reading. A question is often a great way to start (see the beginning of this post for example). This is rule #1 for a reason” it’s the most important. In the military, they call it BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front).
  2. The first paragraph is one sentence only. See #7 for more on this.
  3. Don’t use tired language, clichés, or common figures of speech. In other words, be original.
  4. When at all possible, tell a story. This post breaks the mold for most of my posts. Most of my posts deal with a personal experience (a story) of how I messed up and learned from it. Engage the reader with a story, from your own life or from someone else’s.
  5. Paint a vivid picture. Your words should spark creative thoughts in the minds of your readers. Give them details and vivid portraits of what you are trying to say.
  6. Use small and simple words. Don’t make people look for a dictionary.
  7. Make your sentences and paragraphs short. Limit paragraphs to one train of thought and follow rule #8.
  8. If you can eliminate a word, do it. This is especially important when editing down. I usually find at least 30 words in a 500-word article that I can do without. Example: “As I was thinking about what to write here, it occurred to me that I had nothing to write.” A better wording might be, “I was thinking about what to write here and I realized I had nothing to write.” It’s a subtle change, but it is both more active and three words shorter. Other examples “I often find myself considering…” becomes “I often consider.” “Due to the increased cost of attending college, I decided to skip my final year” becomes “As college costs rose, I decided to skip my final year.” Last example: My original wording for the second sentence in rule #6 was “Don’t make people have to look for a dictionary.” I changed it to “Don’t make people look for a dictionary.” I took out two unnecessary words. It’s slightly more powerful, easier to read, and shorter.
  9. Don’t use jargon. This is particularly relevant to internet marketers who often use “techie” language.
  10. Use no more than two commas per sentence if possible.

A few years ago, I learned about something that changed my writing forever.

microsoft-word-readability-statisticsI learned how to check the readability statistics in Microsoft Word for everything I wrote. I could now check for passive sentences, reading ease, and grade level. I try to not use passive sentences and keep the grade level at or below 7th grade (scary, but effective).

The image on the right shows you what this looks like. Setting it up in Word is easy. In Word 2010, go to:

File >> Options >> Proofing >> Check “Show readability statistics” about 2/3 of the way down. 

This will not find the passive sentences for you, but it will show you how many you have. Try for two or less per 500 words.

To get your grade level down and reading ease up, follow the rules above. Take long sentences and make them short. Take four syllable words and make them two. Take paragraphs with five or more sentences and divided them into two paragraphs.

You will be well on your way to better writing!

And in case you were wondering, this post has a grade level of 5.8, a 76.0 reading ease, and has one passive sentence. Can you find it? (no really, can you, because I can’t)

Which of these tips will most improve your writing?

14 thoughts on “Language Lessons from Orwell and Luntz

  1. Bret Wortman says:

    I think MS Word is wrong. I re-read your article and ran it through After The Deadline (http://afterthedeadline.com/) and neither one turned up any passive sentences.

    I once had the opportunity to speak with David Morrell. He taught me that the secret to his novels was in being a ruthless editor, cutting anything that didn’t advance the story. If you read his books, you’ll find no long passages containing descriptive details to “set the mood.” Short chapters, full of action and character but sparse on unnecessary details. I often forget his advice, unfortunately.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Weird. I ran it through Word again and sure enough, no passive sentences. Strange.

      I agree with Morrell on novels. On emails and other quick hitters, I find the key is to literally take 1 minutes or so per 300 words (slightly less than 1 page in Word for reference) and proofread. That might account for 5-10 minutes per day of proofreading. That is worth it to come across as more intelligent and someone who organizes his thoughts well.

  2. Lily Kreitinger says:

    LOVE this post!!!! Great advice and definitely will have to write BLUF on sticky notes and post them on the bathroom mirror. I tend to “build up” the story. My husband says he needs the Reader’s Digest version when I talk to him about anything. Thanks for the very useful tips!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      That is a good idea Lily.

      Remind yourself at the beginning of emails. BLUF, BLUF, BLUF!

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    As a writer and communication teacher, I’m have big belief in being brief and direct. Great adivce here, Matt, but what about #8? Could you have said it in less words?

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Probably haha 🙂

  4. Jon Stolpe says:

    I like #4. (Is that short enough for you?)

  5. Aaron Nelson says:

    Matt!! This post was very informative and useful. I will save it to pass on to some of my students, if you don’t mind. (And I’ll be sticking it up somewhere so I can follow the rules and ideas you mentioned here too. ) Thanks for writing this.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Seriously? Wow Aaron, that is like the coolest compliment ever.

      Let me know how you use it please. I would love to hear more!

      Thanks for stopping by my friend.

  6. I’ve entered a writing contest where you had to tell your story in 300 words. It was called Postcard Writing. Challenging! Edit, edit, edit – and visiting the Microsoft Word stats repeatedly. Good exercise though. So often we have a case of “verbal diarrhoea” and need to cork it! Ha ha.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      LOL at “verbal diarrhea”

      That is tweetable.

      I often write for a publication that has a strict 500 word limit. Usually an article will start off at 650. Then I turn a lot of things into contractions, eliminate filler words, take out the funny anecdote and I get it down to about 530. Those last 30 words are HARD!

  7. Great post. A lot of useful info that I already used for my post coming out tomorrow.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      That is great Jim! Please share it with me tomorrow 🙂

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