Tired Metaphors: A Cry for Originality

orwellGeorge Orwell, on the heels of publishing Animal Farm and various autobiographical essays, published “Politics and the English Language“.  The essay is still being used in writing courses everywhere as a loud voice railing against predictable and unimaginative writing.

In the essay, Orwell makes several remarks of note but his thesis is clear:

“Now it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.  But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” (par. 2)

Writing the article in 1946, after seeing the horrors of WW2, Orwell understood the power of language to reach a political agenda.  The article has political leanings, but there are also parts of the essay that speak more to the point of metaphors and creative writing that fiction writers should read and take note.

Orwell states that every writer should ask themselves these four questions:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

I think that #1 and #2 are givens for any salty writer.  The last two questions are at the center of the Twinkie for the writer.  Often writers will use images, metaphors or idioms that are overused and therefore tired.  Buzzle.com has listed many of these metaphors or images that have been used so much that they (to quote Ray Stantz) “shouldn’t be touched by a ten meter cattle prod”.  Some of my favorites on this list are:

  • dead tired
  • light of my life
  • raining cats and dogs
  • music to my ears
  • strong as an ox

I am in the middle of writing the first book in a series, and I will have to say that I am taking Orwell seriously as I trudge through the prose.  I prune, I cultivate, and I hack away with my mental machete.  I am at least conscious of these overused metaphors, images and idioms.

By creating new and fresh imagery, metaphors and idioms, we will by default create better prose that is unique and fresh.  Our readers will appreciate the creativity.  It will automatically wake those somnambular sentences we are so fond of writing and make the reading of our prose an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.

Orwell also states that “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear” (par. 18).  How many writers have been quashed with rote grammar exercises and being told by teachers to “write using the form”?  When we write according to a model or a form, we stifle any attempt at creative style, preventing writers from finding that unique style that is of their own design.

The final advice (toward the end of the essay) that Orwell provides is in the form of 6 rules that every writer should follow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short word will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

The “spirit of the law” I feel is found in rule #6.  We need to follow these rules as long as they don’t lead our prose to become low brow and therefore weak.  Above all I think Orwell would want us to unlock the beast of creativity we keep locked away in our minds with social media, Netflix binge-watching and many other useless activities that keep us from writing, from really spending quality time crafting the words.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

6 thoughts on “Tired Metaphors: A Cry for Originality

  1. Hello!
    I have just found your blog and am loving it, it is so helpful!!! Thank you! I am a 56 y.o. RN, and although I have written all of my life in both French (my mother tongue) and English, I have never yet submitted any work for publishing. But at last I have decided to be brave and submit a novel… Writing is hard! Each word a struggle… But it is also so much fun and am lucky at this point because ideas are pouring out of me, I’m taking advantage of this as I know it may not last forever! So, thankyou again for awesome help!

  2. I’m of the opinion that any solid writer (who is, by default, also a solid reader) should experience a visceral cloying feeling whenever reading or writing a hackneyed expression. If this doesn’t occur, one may simply “want to be a writer” rather than actually being one at core.

    On another point, it’s still a great mystery to me why schools continue to teach “the five-paragraph essay” form to students. At all. Ever. It has no practical application in any arena of life beyond the system that institutes and enforces it; and it actually results most often in stale, unimaginative and ineffective writing even within that system. I might even classify most writing produced using such a form as, in Orwell’s words, “outright barbarous.”

    It’s equally mystifying how few people, after having received specific instruction on “writing” within educational settings, are able in practical terms to write with a clear audience and purpose in mind, let alone have a solid grasp of voice or tone.

    Rant over.

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