Blog - Dominic Jeff -Writing for Business
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Do George Orwell’s Rules on Writing Still Hold True?

When it comes to teaching and encouraging clear writing, George Orwell’s famous six rules are often cited. With the vast amounts of content being churned out on the internet and in the media, the need for clarity and economy of words is greater than ever – but how well do Orwell’s points stand up to modern needs?

The six points originally appeared in the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” in which the author railed against the deliberate twisting of words which he said were corrupting political thought. It is remarkably prescient stuff, the crude ’doublespeak’ tactics of the Nazis and Bolsheviks having been perfected over the decades by marketeers, spin doctors and government spokespeople.

Orwell’s brilliant and alarming take on the relationship between language and politics is beyond the scope of this blog, however: Such matters are better discussed on a cultural forum.

Rightly or wrongly, Orwell’s essay is largely remembered for his writing rules which are still taught on journalism courses today:

  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 outright barbarous.

Let’s look at each from the perspective of modern writing:

1 – Cliches have no place. It doesn’t mean you can’t use turns of phrase or expressions, but Orwell was not referring to that. The problem in the modern media is when a phrase becomes a go-to, trendy, lazy way of scoring points. How many times has something been described as “not fit for purpose” as a catch-all way of attacking and institution? There are surely better, more precise ways of describing issues with NHS funding or school buildings, and yet when this phrase is trotted out, journalists and commentators seem to delight in repeating it ad nauseum as if its very utterance were a cast iron argument condemning management incompetence.

2 – This is a good rule of thumb, but there are reasons to break it at times. Yes, short words are good. They are often more direct in meaning. And certainly, one should never use a long word when trying to be clever. This is balanced against the need to vary the words used in an article, and the fact that sometimes a long word conveys more precisely what you are trying to say.

3. – Almost always true. Occasionally, the cadence of a sentence requires an extra, technically superfluous word to be judiciously left in or even added. But then, many a council press release would require two thirds of the drivel to be cut out. Though this rule seems to have been included on a mainly aesthetic principle, it has grown in relevance now that waffle is used as an obfuscation tactic and marketing device.

4 – The theory holds that the more common, active voice is more immediate and exciting. That is true, but there are good reasons why the passive is sometimes preferred, both in speech and writing: usually, to emphasise the ’doer’. For example, ‘that such arguments should be made by a British Member of Parliament’ – ie, we expect to hear them in a council estate pub but it’s a bit of a shocker from the Honourable Member for Newton Abbott, or some such. Indeed.

On the other hand, where the passive voice is used to disguise the subject of the sentence, or obfuscate responsibility, then Orwell’s dictum could hardly be more relevant.

5 – Why would you use a word that can’t easily be understood when you are trying to communicate? Some will argue that they are ’writing for a specialist audience’, but this is rarely as true as they believe and anyway, specialists appreciate clear language too. More likely, jargon is being used to exclude the public from the conversation, keep access exclusive, or hide something that will appear abhorrent once expressed in plain English.

6 – Obviously. We’ve just seen that all Orwell’s rules carry caveats. And rule vi shows that these were intended.

It’s easy to see why these rules are still cited by teachers today – although perhaps not by enough of them! Not only does Orwell score a solid six out of six, it is clear that his rules regarding cliches, jargon and waffle have become more relevant over time. All three are widely employed in the public and corporate sectors for the purposes of obfuscation. Journalists need to spot this and call it out, while good PR and marketing writers should avoid them in favour of clearly laying out a message they genuinely believe in.

The rules also remain an excellent guide to good writing and are a good crib sheet for those new to editing copy.

It’s tempting to think that Orwell, who at times comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, would have hated the internet age. Probably he would. But this line from Politics and the English Language suggests there are aspects he’s have appreciated: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”

Yes, Orwell would enjoyed a (non-cliched) meme, and he’d love a gif!

 

Montserrat – the holy heart of Catalan climbing

When I drove up to the car park at the col, the police had just opened the road after the night’s snowfall, but by the time the mist cleared enough to give me a view of the spires, it was gone.

Even though I’d missed my chance to see the rare sight of Montserrat covered in snow, Catalonia’s sacred mountain didn’t disappoint. I’d walked into the middle of an area called “Agulles”, or needles, where a wonderful free bothy has long been a base for climbers. An 80 foot wall in front of the bunkhouse indicated their presence with a line of bolts and dozens of little holes where previous generations practiced their aid skills and tested the reliability and hardness of the conglomerate’s different components. As the mist lifted, greater potential became evident. Then more. And more.

To one side, a huge wall of vertical rock framed the scene. About 400 ft high and almost as wide, this is known as Agulles’ “big wall”. Although not that high, it looks the part. Outrageous rounded spires of conglomerate also loomed into view, the first just a few dozen yards away. As the cloud level rose further, new clusters appeared, until it seemed like there would be no end, no eventual summit. And Agulles is just one sub-section of this amazing mountain.

[quote float=”right”]Forget what you think you know about conglomerate: the rock here is very solid and brings great variety to the climbing thanks to its diverse make up.[/quote]

Formed from alluvial deposits in an ancient inland sea, Montserrat was thrust out of the heart of Catalonia millions of years ago and subsequent erosion has blessed it with a veritable forest of these spires, as well as many more conventional crags of perfect conglomerate. Forget what you think you know about this medium: the rock here is very solid and brings great variety to the climbing thanks to its diverse make up. Of course, you’ll still do a lot of pocket pulling and pebble balancing, but there are cracks and flakes too.

Montserrat has long been a place of religious and national significance to the Catalans, and it is also seen as the cradle and spiritual home of their considerable climbing and mountaineering tradition. It is surprising then, that it isn’t as well known internationally as the smaller crags of Margalef, Siurana or Oliana. And Montserrat is bigger in every way. Not only are the routes longer, there are far more of them: around 5,000 at the last count, covering trad, aid, bolted multi-pitch adventures and conventional sport lines. Over an area of just a few square kilometres, this has to be one of the densest concentrations of developed climbing anywhere in the world.

Only 40 km from Barcelona, Montserrat can be busy, but most of the voices at the crag here are Spanish and Catalan. There are good reasons for this – it’s a harder to place to find your way around than the classic sport areas, and the plethora of guidebooks alone can be confusing. But there is now at least one that tries to make overall sense of the place for visiting climbers – Montserrat Free Climbs – and the village of El Bruc a good base with a gear shop and climbers’ bar (The Bar Anna). And Montserrat offers as good a selection of climbs for any season as anywhere in Spain, with only high summer being too hot.

That said, yesterday’s clouds returned and I’m currently sat in the bar hiding from the rain, although I don’t think things can be much better in Siurana. And the climbing style is often not quite to the modern taste, when compared to such illustrious local competition. But a couple of days ago I did some magnificent long sport pitches on vertical rock to rival anywhere, at Vermell del Xincarro on the south face, and I’m hoping to take on one of the iconic spires tomorrow.

The logistics of Montserrat should be easy: turn up at El Bruc, check out the huge guidebook selection over a coffee in the Bar Anna (although the locals prefer wine or even vermouth before hitting the crag!) and go climb something. There water in the village, and the back road to the monastery has some stunning spots to park up in your van with views across to the Pyrenees. If you don’t have a van, the aforementioned bothy – Refugi Vincenc Barbe – looks great. It’s clean and cosy with a log burner and bunks for about 24, and there’s a cafe there at weekends. For the summer months, the Monastery on the north side runs a campsite.

Hauling rock with Wolfie in Todra

Which route you do?”

The big one, up there.”

Ah, this is nice route,” the old man in a djellaba says. “Ten pitches, all 5, 5+.”

A bit of banter is expected as you run the gauntlet of Berber market traders stationed along the narrow section of the Todra Gorge. Their stalls offering scarves and jewellery add a dash of colour to the almost permanently shaded passage, less than 20 metres wide in places but flanked by walls 300m high. However, they are not normally knowledgeable about climbing.

Do you climb?” I ask the old fellow.

Yes, sometimes,” he replies. “I climb with Arnaud Petit when he comes. And I climbed with Gullich when he came many years ago.”

The name bomb – pretty much the biggest you can drop in sport climbing terms – is casually delivered, with no intent whatsoever to blow away cocky western bumblies. In fact, I never saw a Moroccan climb in two weeks cragging there, but at Todra at least there were a few local guides who seemed like they knew the ropes.[quote float=”right”]He climbed with Gullich[/quote] 

I reverently ask for some directions on the line, the guidebook being relatively vague for such a big route. Reassured that it is a case of following the bolts, I scramble up the north east corner of the gorge, muttering to Sam: “He climbed with Gullich.

What followed may not have required any one-finger campus board training, but it was one of the best climbing experiences I’ve ever had. Todra is a paradise of multi-pitch sport and we had chosen its longest route for our last day: L’Etute Crue, 5+, with all pitches indeed being around the F5 mark.

Soon Sam and I were hauling up the rock, pausing only to swap a few draws and have a sip of water each at the belays. Being limestone and bolted, the climbing felt straightforward, which was just as well given our mid-morning start and the short November days. By the time we were on the second pitch, the route was catching the sun and conditions were perfect. We enjoyed the sensation of reeling in the pitches as the ground retreated and people and cars on the road below got smaller and smaller.

All the pitches were over 30m and some were more than 50m, so the halfway shoulder felt like an airy perch, with magnificent views down on wreckage of a hotel hit by rockfall in the gorge below. From here a walk is made to reach a higher pillar – which has some amazing potential for harder lines. From below this had seemed like a small add-on at the top, but in fact it was every bit as high as the first section had been.

More delightful climbing followed, although we rued the decision not to pack food. The final three pitches shoot straight up the arête of the pillar, and the walk off was pleasant too, leading us back through the gorge and past welcome refreshment stalls.

[quote float=”right”]We drove off into the desert twilight with some regret[/quote]

It was our last day, and we needed to start heading towards Agadir airport, so after a few pictures and a snack we left the Todra, the eager Berber sellers still trying everything they could think of to get us to buy something or even swap our climbing gear for trinkets. We drove off into the desert twilight with some regret: there are many more great looking routes at Todra, so we’d have liked to stay another week.

Clearly the locals would have liked us to stay too – Todra doesn’t seem to be much in fashion at the moment, perhaps because Spanish climbers all seem to be skint and for everyone else it is a bit of a trek to get to. That’s a shame, because it offers an excellent playground and with plenty of shade and a breeze prevalent in the gorge, there should be routes climbable from early Autumn through to late Spring. Once there it is an extremely user-friendly venue, with the climbing much more accessible than the other gems of the Morrocan crown, Taghia and Tafraute.

In many ways, it is more like climbing in Spain, although alas the local Berbers are yet to develop a tapas culture and an enlightened attitude to women and wine.

Todra Logistics

The Todra Gorge lies on the southern edge of the High Atlas, near the town of Tinghir. Although the huge cliffs of excellent brown limestone are far from climbed out, there is a good selection of both single pitch sport and multi pitch, from two or three pitch sport routes to bigger undertakings which top out and in some cases require gear. The Oxford Alpine Club produces a slim English guidebook which has plenty to keep you going, and further topos are available from a local venture which is trying to establish Todra as more of a destination, and offer guiding. Its website can be seen here: http://www.escalade-au-maroc.com/#Accueil.A

The nearest airport is at Ouarzazate but you’re unlikely to get a direct flight there from the UK. However, the gorge is only about five hours drive from Marrakesh, or perhaps seven from Agadir, and once you’re there you don’t need a car at all if you stay in one of the cheap and cheerful little hotels at the entrance to the gorge. Here you will literally wake up to sunny crags soaring above you, but be warned: there’s not a lot to do of an evening, no licensed bar, and they rely on noisy generators for power. They usually manage to rustle up some pretty decent grub, though.

Bigger, more westernised hotels can be found in Tinghir, and along the road linking the town and the gorge. It generally seems possible to just show up and negotiate a price.

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Book Review: In Some lost Place

– Are you training for Everest?

– No, obviously, otherwise I’d be trudging up a loose rubbish dump covered from head to toe in down and plastic, instead of clinging to an acutely overhanging boulder in nothing but a pair of shorts and a woolly hat!

That’s what we ought to say, isn’t is. But most of the time it’s easier to just bludgeon bimblers to death and toss them into the Rubicon.

Having said that, it’s been a while since anyone asked me that idiotic question. I distinctly remember being asked on occasion, back in the day, but I guess it might have been the 1990s, an in Yorkshire at that. I wonder if young climbers even know “are you training for Everest” is a thing?

Well, it was, and I’ve already digressed considerably as I’m supposed to be reviewing a book about Nanga Parbat. But the point is, we warm weather climbers don’t necessarily have much interest in Himalayan mountaineering, and we are pretty damn sure that there is little connection between even a technical route on an 8,000er and the Spanish redpoint glory we dream about when considering a foreign trip.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I have no interest in climbing an 8,000m peak, and seldom read books about it. However, publisher Vertebrate kindly sent In Some Lost Place over so I thought I’d open my mind and give it a go. Guess what? it’s really good.

Due to my lack of interest in alpinism, I hadn’t heard of Sandy Allan, although he’s clearly been on the scene for quite a while. Indeed, one of the most amazing things about his ascent of Nanga Parbat via the Mazeno Ridge is that both he and his partner, Rick Allen, were in their late 50s at the time. Maybe I will take up Himalayan climbing in a few years’ time then, because Sandy’s book has got me inspired.

Sandy is clearly an extremely accomplished mountaineer and his narrative involves many of the famous names that even your average boulderer will be acquainted with. He’s also a good writer, as his simple prose rapidly drew me in. Maybe I have a weakness for books and for a good tale, but I found myself thoroughly gripped by his account of the epic ascent. Even though I obviously knew that the duo survived, and indeed received a Piolet ‘Or for their efforts, I found myself racing through the final chapters to see how they got off the “Killer Mountain”.

In part, that is because of the sheer audacity of the climb. Even to the total layman, it is obvious that this was a different world to the well-publicised tawdriness of commercial Himalayan expeditions that puts many of us off alpinism.

But the grip factor is also a testament to Sandy’s writing. Accounts of a single climb of any nature can be prone to floundering into repetitiveness, falling into cliches or getting bogged down on the technical. Sandy skilfully sidesteps these by concentrating on the human. The book naturally falls into two halves, with the first laying the background to both Sandy’s personal story and that of the Mazeno Ridge. That is all neatly book-ended by a dramatic moment on the mountain, and takes the adventurous party along the ridge and onto the upper slopes of Nanga Parbat itself. That relative time of safety for the mountaineers is a dangerous moment for the book, as it loses pace and hovers on introspection.

But, like the climbers, it has merely stopped for a breather. Soon it is into the gripping account of the final ascent and descent, comprising an insane amount of time spent without food or water at well over 7,000m. The entire adventure is described in considerable detail but this never becomes tedious as Sandy focuses on the battle of the mind. That is something all of us climbers can relate to in a sense, even if we’ve only ever sieged a hard boulder problem near our home.

[box]In Some Lost Place is published by Vertebrate, who also produce a lot of books by rock climbers like Ben Moon and Steve McClure, and even some guidebooks.[/box]

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