I’m a fan of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” I recommend it all the time, and strongly recommend it to people reluctant to use short words when chewier ones can be found — which is to say that deep down they worry that using “use” doesn’t sound as smart as saying “utilize.” Orwell would disagree.
The full essay also explains why euphemism in political language is so appalling. (If phrases like “collateral damage” never troubled you much before, they will after reading it.) After exploring the dangers of sloppy writing — how it aids and abets sloppy thinking — Orwell wraps up with six tips for avoiding cliches and muddy prose that I refer back to often, and perhaps not often enough:
(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.
I don’t agree with (iv) as I think there are occasions for which the passive tense is perfect. Anyhow, recently in New York magazine I stumbled across six rules from art critic Jerry Saltz, these specifically for critics. They’re as useful as Orwell’s and about as meaningful, which is to say, embedded in the tips are larger ideas about how to be — by oneself and amongst others. Both are small-d democratic in a lovely way.
1) Write in English that everyone can understand.
2) Don’t only describe. Describe and judge. Describe and judge.
3) Don’t hide your opinion in one word in the middle of the last paragraph.
4) Please use the artist’s name within the first three sentences. If you do not, you are only throat-clearing.
5) Look a lot. Look at everything. Bad art teaches you as much as good art.
6) Repeat step one for the rest of your life.