As a writer, there's always more to learn — and there's certainly no shortage of great writers to learn from. Here are a few of the writers who inspire me to keep improving, and who I like to imagine looking over my shoulder saying "don't use that double genitive".
In his classic essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell lamented the enormous number of “swindles and perversions” in modern prose, and outlined his rules for good writing:
- 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.
These rules are as applicable to copywriting as they are to anything else. And the following paragraph deserves to be framed in gold and hung on the wall of every Starbucks where freelance writers work:
"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? . . . But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."
Hemingway's short stories are masterpieces of brevity. By stringing a few simple words together, he was able to tell a story of intense vividness and emotional power. He taught generations of writers that a few carefully chosen words can be more powerful than a deluge of big or fancy ones. The best example is his famous (and apocryphal, but irresistible) "six-word novel":
And then there's his equally famous retort to William Faulkner, who had complained about Hemingway's lack of complexity:
"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."
Okay, so Bertrand Russell doesn't look like the guy you'd hire to write your website copy — and I realise this list is becoming older and whiter and more male with each successive section. But it's difficult for me to talk about "inspirations" without bringing up Russell. His clear, witty, insightful essays are the gold-standard for both style and substance, in my view. Here's just one example.
Books like The History of Western Philosophy and The Conquest of Happiness would easily make my "desert island" list. His work is proof that the most complex ideas can be expressed simply, in a way that everyone can understand.