Effective writing (in Ancient Warfare)

At present, I’m editing Ancient Warfare issue X.5, which will deal with the Persians from the Achaemenids to the Sassanids, with a particular emphasis on the former. Much of my time is spent poring over contributors’ texts, editing them to fit the magazine’s style and also correcting things that are either wrong or simply bother me for one reason or another.

If you’ve read Ancient Warfare since I took over as editor, four years ago almost to the day, you may have noticed that the word ‘utilize’ never shows up. (And I shall patiently await those readers who will now email me to point out that an article in this-or-that issue did indeed contain the word and I thus slipped up in the performance of my editorial duties.) The reason for this is that ‘utilize’ is, aside from being rather ugly, a totally superfluous word. There’s a perfectly acceptable and much shorter synonym available, namely ‘use’.

Removing an instance of this word again in one of the articles – whose author shall remain nameless and therefore blameless – I thought it would be good to devote a blog post to writing effectively. You’ve probably heard of the rules that George Orwell (1903–1950), writer of Animal Farm and 1984, wrote down in his 1946-essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. He gave useful advice, so let’s list those five rules here:

  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.

Using ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’ would break Orwell’s rule 2, but all the other ones are equally sound. If you break rule 1, for example, Orwell emphasized that you’re essentially using other people’s words to express something, and your writing might veer into cliché or become altogether nonsensical. Instead of saying that this-or-that is a person’s ‘Achilles’ heel’, just write that it’s their weakness. Language devoid of needless figures of speech tends to be more concise and easier to read.

Rule 3 is one that is especially important in magazine publishing. As most of the writers who have contributed to Ancient Warfare will attest, it’s very rare that I’m not forced to cut down an article by a few dozen, or even a few hundred words. If you have only 1600–1800 words (three pages, not counting pictures) to make your point, you have to be succinct.

With Ancient Warfare, you also have to be careful when it comes to names. Some authors have read a lot about a particular subject and it’s tempting to introduce every figure that you’ve read about who is somehow connected to the story you’re telling. But in many instances, the principal actors will number no more than a handful at most, and a mass of names usually only serves to confuse the reader. For example, this is simply dreadful:

Titus met Gaius for dinner at Marcus’ place before heading over to the Senate by way of Decimus’ shoe shop to confront Claudius about his affair with Antonia, the wife of Titus and daughter of Cornelius.

Remove what itsn’t needed and focus instead on what’s actually important:

Titus confronted Claudius in the Senate over Antonia, Titus’ wife.

Rule 4 is a matter of style, but it’s good advice. It’s much easier and more exciting to read something in the active voice than the passive. ‘The barbarian settlement was conquered by the Romans’ is technically fine, but not half as appealing as when we rephrase it in the active voice:

The Romans conquered the barbarian settlement.

Naturally, rule 5 is one that is perhaps of paramount importance to Ancient Warfare. The magazine is aimed at a casual, but informed audience, and use of jargon should be avoided at all costs, unless the jargon itself is important for some reason, in which case it must be accompanied by some sort of definition. Likewise, use of Latin or Greek should be limited, except when the terms have become so ingrained as to be widely understood by our audience (e.g. hoplite, centuria).

Finally, George Orwell added a sixth rule: ‘Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.’ His point was that while the five rules are a useful guide to writing more effectively, you should not feel like you have to slavishly abide by them if your text might indeed, in some instances, benefit from breaking one of the rules.

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