The writer sat before his typewriter and prepared to write. He laced his fingers together, turned his palms outward, and stretched his arms. I’m ready, he thought, and felt a comforting hand on his back as Easy took a seat beside him.
Where to begin? pondered the writer. Easy smiled and reached into his sack, pulling from it a string of words. “Try these,” Easy offered.
The writer placed them on the page. The words were recognizable, and they seemed a likely place to start. “A few more,” said Easy, again reaching into his sack. “These should follow nicely.” And indeed they did.
I’m writing! thought the writer. As the writer brought his hands together, excited enough to clap, Easy placed more words between them, and the writer couldn’t resist.
The page filled nicely, and the writer began another page, and another. Easy reached again and again into his sack, but the bag looked as full as ever. The writer wondered where the language came from and whose thoughts it represented, but the ease of putting words on the page overcame any misgivings.
I’m writing, thought the writer, but he no longer believed it.
* * *
George Orwell attacked “easy” writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell writes, “Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
Orwell marks easy writing by staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. He says that easy writing consists of ready-made phrases that will fall together on the page, forming your sentences for you and thereby forming your thoughts as well.
His essay is directed primarily at political writing, but his advice applies to any language we commit to the page. I think we all recognize what he means, and, even if it’s hard to acknowledge, we can see it in our own writing. Perhaps such language is inevitable in our first draft, but when we begin rewriting, we can ask ourselves the questions that Orwell suggests:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is the image fresh enough to have an effect?
Orwell then recommends two further questions:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Writing without ready-made phrases is difficult, even painful, but as has been so often said, writing is rewriting. When the words pour from us and fill out the pages we want so badly to look at our work and feel it’s perfect that there’s a barrier we find difficult to breach. The urge to send a piece out and have others affirm our high opinion of it is almost irresistible. It’s a struggle to go sentence by sentence and question our language, to ask whether we could use stronger, more effective nouns and verbs. Perhaps when we do so we find we haven’t said much of anything at all and have to dig back into our work. And perhaps in the process we open up our writing to new possibilities. Perhaps our language becomes more precise. Perhaps our readers reap greater rewards from the text they are kind enough to dedicate their time to reading.
Orwell goes on to discuss stale metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. I haven’t done the essay justice, but I strongly believe that it should be required reading for any writer.
Lionel Richie’s “Easy” is a great song (though I’m partial to the Faith No More rendition), but Easy is not your friend. Writing is a solitary endeavor and should hurt a bit. I’m telling this to the only person I have any right to say it to, myself, but you might want to say it as well:
Easy, my old friend, take a hike.