Ralf Schulz
By Ralf Schulz | Content Writing | September 8, 2014

Writing a Fluff-Free Content Article

Content writing, like blogging or other new media writing forms, is hard to classify as formal or informal. Creativity should be encouraged, of course, but what role do conventions of formal English play in content writing standards? In my opinion, the content writer should just obey the principles of formal English writing – simply put, they make writing better.

This may seem like an obvious-yet-vague way to describe the formality of content writing, but I have some principles in mind. George Orwell’s famous essay Politics and the English Language has been a mainstay of college and high school writing courses for years. The essay posits that English-language writing tends to be full of pretentious word choices, passive sentence constructions, and clichéd figures of speech. Orwell goes on to pinpoint grandiose political rhetoric, which is loaded with medieval imagery, military terminology, and overuse of hyperbole, as the chief negative influence on writing.

 

English writer George Orwell

English writer George Orwell

Here’s the list of writing principles that Orwell provides at the end of his essay:
“(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 [voice] where you can use the active [voice].

(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.

The rules should all be taken with a dose of skepticism (except the last one). The second rule in particular is dogmatic—if you replace “long word” with “word that sends some readers to their dictionaries,” and short word with “common word,” he might be right. I will note that reading your writing aloud is an excellent way to be sure that your word choice and sentence structure is natural to your reader.

The essay has its share of detractors—acclaimed British novelist Will Self comes to mind. Self recently argued that Orwell’s standards of writing are puritanical and kill off creativity. But In my opinion, Orwell was not criticizing writing that uses language creatively or reflects dialect. He was pointing out that most people, when putting words on paper, tend to clutter their writing with all sorts of oddities of word choice and sentence structure. Writing well is a challenge, even for creative writers with a strong command of the English language. Fiction writer and writing instructor Francine Prose noted that aspiring writers hear fascinating conversations in public, on the train, and in restaurants every day, yet many struggle to write down dialogue that sounds like natural human speech!

 

Will Self's critically acclaimed novel "The Book of Dave"

Will Self’s critically acclaimed novel “The Book of Dave”

Of course, many of literature’s best works have violated Orwell’s rules—but, as is the case with most good rules, I believe that Orwell’s guidelines should be followed unless there is a compelling reason to break them. James Joyce surely violates at least three of Orwell’s guidelines in every paragraph (sentence?) of his masterpiece Ulysses, but James Joyce was a once-in-a-generation talent who wrote for daily for hours-on-end to master the craft. When you have written more, you will have a better feel for when it’s best to violate Orwell’s rules.

Now, it’s natural for content writers to protest the cutting out of unnecessary words. “But my clients say the articles are good enough, and I’d be cutting out 150 words of each article!” My solution is simple—expand your article’s scope if it isn’t long enough. It isn’t good to stretch out a 200-word article about the history of AA batteries into 400 words by adding fluff—instead, add another section about the history of AAA batteries!

As a final note, it’s better to end an article after you’ve said all you have to say than to summarize all of your points for six sentences and end with a generalization.

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