Bend It Like Orwell
You want to be a great essayist?
Then study the greats.
Before he wrote 1984 or Animal Farm, he was an essayist. When Irving Howe set out to write essays, he studied Orwell. Orwell was the master. He demonstrated how it’s possible to be unobtrusively interesting line after line.
Which is the First Orwell Lesson:
Flannery O’Connor taught that every word in a short story should have meaning. I’d submit the same applies to essays. Every line should move the reader along an interesting continuum.
The reader, Orwell taught, shouldn’t appreciate the prose. It should be like a clear window.
You need a great lede to get the reader to look through the window in the first place.
At this, Orwell was king:
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
“Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing.”
“Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”
Once the reader is looking through the window, don’t smudge it with bad style.
It’s impossible to list all of Orwell’s style points, but two seem especially notable.
For the love of Eric Blair, don’t use nominalizations.
Do not murder a verb or adjective by turning it into a noun. You are not in need of a pencil. You need a pencil. You do not have an expectation of a raise. You expect a raise.
Even the most sophomoric stylists immediately recognize a nominalization as a sign of stylistic stupor. Orwell condemns nominalization in one of the greatest essays about style ever written: Politics and the English Language, where he also spends a lot of effort to explain why writers must . . .