George Orwell’s Rules For Writers

4 06 2008

George OrwellCrawling around in my old computer files the other day I came across this list of six rules for writers which, sad to say, no longer seem to be on the site from which I stole them (CCSN in Nevada). I reprint them here because the more people who see this, the better place the world will be:

  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 [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 say anything outright barbarous.

Aside from the fact that I have probably violated all six of these rules during my blogging and writing career, it occurs to me that most of these rules have their equivalent in film and video work (gotta find a better term for what we do) since they basically boil down to this “Treat the reader like an adult and don’t talk down to them.” I find, both at school and professionally, that there is a terrible tendency to over explain or over obfuscate. I know those sound contradictory, but they’re not. I find shots held on way past the point where they’re giving any new information because “the audience needs to get it.” I’ve also found director being deliberately obscure because “I don’t want to pander to common sensibilities.”

Most student movies tend to be too long (I should know, mine were and are, thankfully, not available on the Web — you should see my version of an unproduced Antonin Artaud script) and, often, too obscure. It’s as if the filmmakers were deliberately challenging the audience to be engaged. And, if my own experience is any judge, that is often just what they are doing — saying that “You should come to me, not the other way around.”

Needless to say, I now totally disagree with my earlier self on this. If I have anything at all to say to an audience, I need to make them understand it. Otherwise, why would I even show the film to anyone else other than myself. For me, and for most filmmakers, our works exist as a way to touch other people. Of course, we are constantly struggling with how much to reveal, how clear to be, and how to explain ourselves. But, ultimately, we want to explain ourselves to others.

And so, with apologies to George Orwell, I present my version of his six rules:

  1. Never use a filmic device that has been so overused that it is instantly identifiable.
  2. Never hold on longer on a shot or a scene than you need to in order to deliver its point.
  3. If you don’t need a shot, a line of dialogue, or a scene, always cut it out.
  4. Never use objective shots where you can use subjective ones.
  5. Never be deliberately obscure with a script point, unless you plan to reveal its meaning later (and keeping its meaning to your audience is important to your story telling).
  6. Don’t do anything obnoxiously obvious, garish or horrifying.

Somehow, I don’t expect these rules to go down in history (or even to appear on the CCSN website, like Orwell’s did. But I do think that they’re a start to a discussion about the audience/filmmaker balance.




7 responses

4 06 2008
Terry Finley

I like how you adapted these rules.

5 06 2008

Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. I enjoy reading this blog.

Meaning no disrespect (my way of understanding wisdom is to challenge it to see if it holds up), I’ve got some questions.

1. Never use a filmic device that has been so overused that it is instantly identifiable.

So one filmic device that is used a lot is the insert shot. In his commentary on the DVD of Hollywoodland, Allen Coulter talked about about alternatives to the insert. Is that an example of what you mean? Can you give some others?

3. If you don’t need a shot, a line of dialogue, or a scene, always cut it out.

I agree with this one wholeheartedly! Recently I watched August Rush. It is a very good movie but it looses its pace in several scenes. The bonus features showed several deleted and extended scenes which demonstrated that they had shortened it some. In my opinion they should have cut another five or ten minutes.

6. Don’t do anything obnoxiously obvious, garish or horrifying.

So that eliminates all horror films and anything on TV with CSI in the title. Right?

Peace, Love, Laughter,


5 06 2008


Thanks for comment. You raise good and humorous points about #1 and 6, of course. I’m not sure that I’d consider an insert shot a device, any more than a wide shot is a device, or a two-shot is a device (at least not in my lexicon)

I’m thinking more along the lines of “shaky cam” or “flutter cutting” or the like.

As for number six — well, if you want to….

20 06 2008
Gabriel Szolllosy

Thanks for sharing this! Looking for decisions for my new film I found your blog. Very useful.

Grretings for Uruguay


20 06 2008

Thanks for reading, and I’m glad to provide some help. Good luck on your film. What is it about?

23 10 2008
Tom Wood

Very good advice, especially concerning the elimination of unnecessary words. I love concise text.

4 02 2009
The 57 Rules for Writers | Juiced On Writing

[…] George Orwell’s six rules for writers, with a film interpretation of these by Norman Hollyn. […]

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