It’s much easier to build from a kit than to start from scratch, whether it’s a model ship or a garden shed. The design has been worked out for you, and all the parts have been cut to the right dimensions. Some kits even come with the glue, nails or screws that you need to put it all together.
The results may not be original or remarkable, but you save a lot of time and effort.
Your writing, however, should be original and remarkable. You have important, interesting things to say. You have information that deserves to be told in your own unique, memorable voice. But you won’t get there by slapping together a collection of prefab phrases.
For instance, it’s easy to grab a phrase like “learn the ropes” and drop it into a sentence. But do you know which ropes it’s referring to, and why it’s good to learn them? Do you know what it means to toe the line? (If you have been writing it as “tow the line,” you’ve proved you don’t know. Likewise if you’ve said that a sure winner is a “shoe-in.”)
When you use words or phrases without being aware of their meaning, you are writing without thinking. At least, you aren’t thinking clearly. That makes it doubly hard for your audience to get your meaning.
Or, to quote George Orwell, “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
Orwell offered a half-dozen rules to help keep your writing original, starting with one that saves you the trouble of learning what all those familiar phrases really mean:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
If that sounds like hard work, it certainly can be. Good writing takes effort.
If you have time to read about 5,400 words on the subject, sit back and drink in the entirety of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You’ll get his take on pretentious diction, meaningless words, and a few other items on his list of bad habits.
“(Writing) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell wrote. “The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”