George Orwell wrote one of the most significant novels of the 20th century in 1984, but his influence is enduring well into the 21st century – both for his literary legacy and his campaign for writing in plain English.
Orwell’s advice on writing is more relevant than ever, and digital marketers in particular should take note.
Orwell championed the idea of plain, easy-to-understand writing in his celebrated essay Politics and the English Language. Here we'll explain the benefits of applying these principles to your web writing.
But first, let’s discuss why plain writing is so important today.
Why are people visiting your website?
People don’t read – they scan. They visit your website to search for information, their eyes skimming the page until they find what they’re looking for.
A recent study from data analytics company Chartbeat examined 2 billion website visits over a month and found that 55 per cent of people spent fewer than 15 seconds on a page.
This means you have just seconds to grab your readers' attention – if they don’t find what they’re after, they’ll go elsewhere.
How Orwell can help you grab your readers’ attention
In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell sets out his argument for plain English.
The essay is underpinned by a series of tips. Much of what Orwell says here is in line with our own best-practice guidance for writing for the web.
Applying these principles to your content will help you take a big step towards clear, concise writing that keeps your readers engaged.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
There’s a place for descriptive, flowery prose, but your website isn’t it. No matter how proud of them you may be, kill your darlings – those poetic, metaphor-heavy lines of which you’re most proud.
They may look pretty and sound really clever, but they're more for your own ego than the reader. Ask yourself, what information is this providing? If none, then strike it out.
2. Never use a long word when a short one will do
You want your reader to instantly understand what you’re saying rather than to be reaching for the dictionary. So, instead of garrulously pontificating on the advantages of sesquipedalian text, write using the language of everyday conversation. You’ll connect with your readers much easier.
Short words can also be read much faster, and can be used to create impactful, front-loaded headlines to grab your readers’ attention.
The most effective words are generally short, too: 'you' is the most important word in a digital copywriter's vocabulary. Other examples include 'want', 'need', 'love', 'because', 'save', 'easy' and 'how to'.
It’s also worth mentioning that plain, simple language is used by customers when they search using Google. So for them to find you, you must get the wording right, shunning industry-speak for common parlance.
As content guru and author Gerry McGovern explains: ‘The customer controls the message today. It is their language that dictates the communication. You must use their words, not yours, if you want to be found.’
‘In a given month, thousands of people will search for “low fares” but millions will search for “cheap flights”. Low fares is airline industry language. Cheap flights is consumer language.’
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
Make every word count. Web writing has to be concise and direct; there's no room for waffle or confusion over your meaning.
So, write and edit, write and edit. Trim the fat until all that remains is the key message – the sense of what you're trying to get across. Any ambiguity is a shortcut to failure.
This is standard practice in journalistic news writing.
4. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
Phrases like ‘raison d'être’, ‘à propos’ or ‘joie de vivre’ might give your writing a distinguished feel, but they’ll pull up any readers who don’t instantly understand the meaning.
Similarly, if you’re writing about something intensely technical, try and think of ways to make it clearer and simpler for the average reader. It can be difficult, but making copy easy and accessible is content writing 101.
5. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
This is perhaps the most important rule of all. In order to create content that flows well and gets to the point in a clear and effective manner, you need to develop an ear for good writing. This means reading other excellent writers (like Orwell), checking and re-checking your copy, and writing for fun as well as for work.
When you’re a thoughtful writer yourself, you’ll have an ear for what sounds good and what sounds ‘barbarous’. You’ll then have no trouble bending and breaking these rules when necessary.