How George Orwell would have written your web pages

Is your web page ugly?

George Orwell, a 20th Century author, noted that a lot of printed English was ugly.Small businessman uses big words

Ugly text is useless.  It’s hard to read and doesn’t cause the reader to respond.  He used the phrase “Avoidable Ugliness” to describe the problem and gave five rules for the rest of us to follow.  So we could avoid writing ugly copy.

When you promote your business using the written word, your choice of structure and the words themselves can speak volumes about you.

Many websites are written in a way that makes the business responsible for them look stupid.

This isn’t the result those businesses were aiming for when they started work on their website.  However it is the result they get.

Question:  Is it happening to you?

Answer:  Probably!

Here are Orwell’s five essential rules for writing.  Let’s have a look at what he had to say.

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

Company websites are full of metaphors, similes and figures of speech.  Some of them used by copywriters who aren’t as good as they think they are.  Most of them used by business owners for whom talking to their prospective customers is less important than stroking their own egos.
Orwell’s reasons for this are quite interesting.  Note the end of the line,

“…which you are used to seeing in print.”

He’s not saying you should stop using figures of speech.  He’s saying, don’t use forms of words which the reader will quickly recognise and be familiar with.

Examples are phrases such as, “Achilles heel”, or “stand shoulder to shoulder with”.

These are “comfortable” phrases which convey a concept instead of a meaning.  Comfortable phrases create no emotional response.  They slip through your reader’s mind and straight out the back of her head.  Your website pages need to create an emotional response.  They need to intrigue the reader, they need to cause a response, to make her want to read the next line.  Otherwise, why bother?

I don’t think Orwell had your web page in mind when he said this, but it is relevant to our topic today.

He said writers should,

“Take time to invent fresh, powerful images.”

From a marketing point of view, this is how you can mark out your business as different from your competitors.  Instead of using tired and meaningless phrases, put a little thought into what you’re trying to say.

For example an Achilles Heel is a weakness.  Instead of simply saying there’s an Achilles Heel, be explicit about what the weakness is.  Then people might take notice.

2.  Never use a long word when a short one will do

Big words.  You’ll see big words on lots of websites.

Long words don’t make you look clever or intelligent unless they are used with skill.  It is rare to see this skill used in a website.  When used without skill they just make you look pretentious and arrogant.

Yes, you.  And you thought you were being clever?

Long words also make your readers work much harder.  Your reader really wants an easy life.  If you make them work hard they can soon find another website where life is easier.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out always cut it out

In terms of your website landing pages, anything that doesn’t contribute to the meaning of your message will dilute its power.

As my copywriter friends say,

“Every word on a web page has to earn its living.”

If there are words on your pages which don’t earn their keep – get rid of them.

4.  Never use the passive when you can use the active

This is verbs we’re talking about.  “Doing” words.  Verbs are all about action.

This rule talks about how you use them.

For example a passive verb might look like this,

“The sheep was bitten by the dog”

The active verb looks like this,

“The dog bit the sheep”

The use of language is shorter and sharper.

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

If only every article I wrote had that certain je ne sais quois…

You might know what that means, you might not.  Why take the risk of assuming your reader knows what you’re talking about?

A couple of months ago I came across the following paragraph used by a firm of Architects to describe one of their house designs .  Take a deep breath…

“Responsive environmental design homes is based on promoting ecominimalism by integrating sustainable design strategies with contemporary architecture, using ecological materials and solutions to minimise energy consumption.”

Well?  What do you think?

They could have said something like,

“Built using energy saving methods, this house is designed to look stunning whilst being easy and cheap to heat.”

But they didn’t.

So that’s Orwells’ 5 rules for writing.  There is actually a sixth.

Break any of these rules sooner than writing anything barbarous

In other words, use common sense.

There will be times when you can use figures of speech.  There will be times when you need to use big words and technical detail.

It depends who you’re writing for and what you want to achieve.

Writing properly is about making sure your message is understood by the reader.  It takes more effort than most people are prepared to make.  If you’re not prepared to make the effort to write properly, you risk making your business look stupid.

Now you know how to avoid taking that risk.