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Orwellian versus stained-glass window prose

Susan Barker
Image credit: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

George Orwell once said, ‘Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.’ In other words, writing shouldn’t draw attention to itself and instead should be a clear medium for conveying meaning. The opposite of clear Orwellian prose would be ‘stained-glass window’ writing — flowery and ornate, and obscuring what it means to convey. And while complex, convoluted sentences can be creative and intellectually stimulating, they are inappropriate in some contexts.

I facilitate workshops on writing with clarity and conciseness for non-academic staff. We focus on writing emails, social media, blog posts and newsletters, as it’s disconcerting to see how these swift, digital methods of communication can be used to obscure the messages themselves.

It often comes down to a battle between writer and message. For example, an email should communicate directly to its intended reader, but is the writer stepping in front of Orwell’s transparent window and acting as a barrier? Perhaps the writer is using unnecessary obscure vocabulary in an attempt to appear more important — why use ‘adumbrate’ when ‘outline’ is simpler? The same can be said for an over-reliance on long, complex sentences that may look very business-like, but the resulting blocks of text run the risk of losing or alienating the reader.

Confusion may arise when the writer knows what they have to say, but is nervous of saying it. Perhaps the message will be unpopular with the intended audience, for instance, a reduction in overtime. It may be tempting to embed crucial information in long-winded preambles and apologies that not only obscure vital material, but also doubly infuriate the recipients who have to sift through them.

In these cases, it is essential that the writer makes sure critical information is first and foremost. This can be achieved by writing in short paragraphs and using bullet points for key messages. If the writer combines this approach with simple vocabulary that has a touch of warmth and sympathy to it – after all, being succinct does not have to mean being cold – the reader’s focus will be on content of the message, not the message itself.

In our workshops, participants are encouraged to take a step back from what they are writing to focus on getting key information across as clearly and concisely as possible. Miscommunication is one of the biggest sources of conflict between colleagues, but by keeping Orwell’s window in mind, we can make the workplace a more harmonious place to be.

6 June 2019

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