Why is development writing so turgid? George Orwell to the rescue

The literature on development can be pretty heavy going, littered with jargon, clunky prose, redundant phrases like ‘in the context of’ and euphemisms like ‘challenge’ (it means a problem). I spend a fair amount of my time reading draft papers, replacing ’employment opportunities are essential constituents of the livelihoods of the excluded population’ with ‘poor people need jobs’ and so on.  This matters because because it diminishes the impact and reduces the readership – the cholestorol of bad writing chokes the arteries of communication with the wider public. Oh, and overblown metaphors.

So I dug out this advice from George Orwell in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English language‘. It’s a wonderful critique of bad writing (including a plea to the Marxists of the time to stop using words like ‘hyena’, ‘mad dog’ and ‘lackey’ to describe their opponents – ah those were the days). Here’s an excerpt:

‘What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.’

And now I’m far too self-conscious to write anything else…….

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5 Responses to “Why is development writing so turgid? George Orwell to the rescue”
  1. I couldn’t agree more. The Orwell piece is fantastic. In economics, Deirdre McCloskey’s (1985) article ‘Economical Writing’ should be read, as should Walter Salant’s (1969, JPE) article ‘Writing and Reading in Economics.’ I wish economists and development workers took more time to work on their prose, it would probably increase the ‘impact’ of their work.

    Consider a randomized evaluation of development articles in which the treatment was an option for the authors to participate in a writing style class. Would the treatment have a significant effect on the ultimate impact of their work?

  2. Crisp writing is priceless, ordinary writing is free. Which argues for better editorial, and paid content in media. But the trend seems in the other direction. Seems like we get what we pay for. But yes, in the so-called “development” space, I wonder if even the writers themselves get bored reading their own work. Or worse still, never bother to read their own stuff.


  3. Sarah Finch

    Great post, Duncan.

    As well as Orwell’s wonderful essay, anyone who writes for a living should also read ‘The Elements of Style’, by Strunk & White.

    This pamphlet – first published in 1918 and updated many times – contains ‘elementary principles of composition’ and ‘a few matters of form’, as well as grammatical rules.

    You can read it online at http://www.bartleby.com/141/ but I wouldn’t be without my printed copy.

  4. I enjoyed this post, especially as I had to study the Orwell essay in A level English back in 1965 and I’m sure I would not then have considered it still being current 45 years later. I’ve also – more recently – enjoyed the various contributions to the “Buzzwords and Fuzzwords” issue of Development in Practice (17:4&5), particularly the title essay from Andrea Cornwell. All the contributions are available at http://www.oxfam.org.uk/publications

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