Instructional Design 101: Six Rules for Writing

Following a pretty expansive series of posts on Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers, I’m about to embark on a major series of articles on the topic of Instructional Design. Rather than jumping straight in to ID, I’d like

Why I Write, by George Orwell

Why I Write, by George Orwell

to invite you to pause, and take an etic perspective on words, writings, and style: some of the most powerful tools of the educator’s trade. Whatever your views on George Orwell’s politics, I would venture to suggest that his writing style is the quintessence of plain English prose. I think that the influential English author and critic’s skills are particularly represented in his essays and short stories.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell criticises “ugly and inaccurate” written English. He asserts that poorly-written language corrupts thought, and vice versa: the slovenliness of language allows for undisciplined thinking, and this disorderly thinking allows for wayward writing. This cyclical process is often difficult to break because bad habits can allow the undisciplined author “convenient and elegant sounding” sentences, with no substance. The connection to instruction and education is clear. Poorly-written content will fail to communicate the meaning of the learning being undertaken. Because of the relevance of his writing to the art of instructional design, content development, and writing for an audience, I’ve decided to post his Six Rules for Writing Good English from his essay on Politics and the English Language*…

Six Rules for Good Writing

Orwell thinks the following rules will cover most cases:

  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 one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive 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 say anything barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the [worst] kind of stuff.

One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs.

Next Time: Introducing Instructional Design

*Other sources for guidance on good writing are available. See:

  • The Elements of Style
  • Plain Words
  • Chicago Manual of Style