We asked Fraser Buffini, one of our new international judges for the 2022 Awards, to tell us a story of transformation. Appropriately enough, Fraser is one of the panel members judging the award for Best Plain Language Turnaround.
Fraser’s career began in the diplomatic world writing the very content he would later want to transform. His company is called The Clear Writing Lab and is based in Grenoble, France. It specialises in transforming content into clear English and training others to do the same.
In this article, Fraser explains how he uses George Orwell’s six rules for political writers to transform difficult content. He walks us through the thought process behind the way he edited a piece of legal writing and transformed it into something readable.
In my former life, I was an aide to the deputy head of a huge mission in the Balkans tasked with fixing the broken rule-of-law system after it imploded during a war. While it was a technical mission on paper, we were relentlessly dragged into politics.
Most of the time my job was to fix reports.
Now, in political writing truth is often kept just out of reach. That’s simply because of the way politics works: it’s about vying for narratives and pushing your agenda. If you do not have neutral anchoring principles, you absolutely will end up keeping the truth just out of reach of the reader. Not deliberately of course.
So where do you get these anchoring principles from? Well, there’s one place I’ll always go to that can be relied on no matter the context, no matter the content. In a 1946 essay, George Orwell wrote six rules for political writers that no one has bettered to this day. They are pure in their simplicity, easy to remember, and have genuinely stood the test of time. And they can be used in any writing, not just in politics. That’s why almost every newspaper style guide today is basically an elaboration on them:
Let me show you how I used these brilliant rules to rework a particularly bad piece of legal writing for a political report. This report had to be as neutral as possible. Here is the hot mess:
‘As abovementioned it was clear that the prosecutor was, inter alia, discontented with the deal that was hammered out henceforth allowing the defendant to walk free.’
Even before the Netflix logo has double-thumped the screen, let’s just delete the worthless bit of metadiscourse that is ‘abovementioned’ (Rule 3 – cut words if you can).
Ok, let’s start. ‘It was clear that–’ … hold on, clear how? Did something happen that made this clear? Did the prosecutor say something? Here is Rule 4 at play: that pesky passive voice throwing sand in our eyes.
Let’s send an email to the drafter of this report and ask them why they wrote ‘it was clear’. The drafter writes back later that day saying ‘well, she gave a statement to the press after the court hearing saying she was angry the deal went through’. That’s pretty useful information that could’ve been put in. Getting rid of the passive voice often helps us get closer to the truth.
Right, now we have basically deleted 20% of the sentence and already found out useful new information. The only text we have cleared so far is ‘the prosecutor was…’.
The next phrase, ‘inter alia’, breaks Rule 5 as it’s a foreign phrase and jargon (it means ‘among other things’). I get the feeling the drafter is ‘hedging’ here: I’m guessing they thought everything the prosecutor said was important and by focusing on one thing, it would reduce the importance of the other things. Let’s drop the drafter a quick email and find out what other things the prosecutor said. ‘Actually she just listed a bunch of legal clauses’, comes the response.
No new or useful information then. The drafter was definitely hedging. Let’s not get our limbs tangled up in the false safety net of comprehensiveness. Delete.
The next word is ‘discontented’. Rule 2 alert! It’s a long word where I think the shorter ‘unhappy’ will do.
Up next is ‘hammered out’. Rule 1 jumping into action here: this is a metaphor we see written all the time in print. Rule 1 is fantastic, since it makes us decide whether we create a fresh, new metaphor or we just remove it and replace it with something plain. I think for this report it’s better to say the deal was ‘reached’, than to come up with a fresh metaphor. However, we’re now in the pickle of the passive voice again (Rule 4): who reached the deal?
We call the drafter on their mobile to clarify: ‘oh it was a bail agreement the defendant’s lawyer made with the judge’. That sneaky passive voice hiding information from us again (Rule 4).
Next up is ‘henceforth’. I’m going to invoke Rule 3 here and declare that this word can, and should, be cut.
And finally, let’s have a look at that last phrase ‘walk free’. It sounds a bit like Rule 1 needs to be declared: I smell hints of a metaphor that we’re used to seeing in print. Let’s just go with the simple ‘released’ instead.
Our sentence now reads:
In a press conference after the hearing, the prosecutor said she was unhappy with the bail agreement the judge and the defendant’s lawyer reached, which allowed the defendant’s release.
Compare it with the old sentence:
As abovementioned it was clear that the prosecutor was, inter alia, discontented with the deal that was hammered out henceforth allowing the defendant to walk free.
The transformed version is much clearer, conveys more information and feels less wishy-washy. Somehow it feels more … honest.
As Fraser sums up:
Having a few guiding principles to fall back on can make a big difference. Using Orwell’s rules have been my go-to principles throughout my working life. Just by applying them, we have managed to unearth crucial new information, remove redundant and unclear phrases, improve clarity, and bring forth more truth.
There is a world of clear writing and plain language advice out there. But with Orwell’s rules, no one has given so much with so little.
We want to see how you’ve transformed your content. Perhaps you’ve had feedback from readers who wanted changes. Or you decided to update your content into something more usable. Show us how you applied George Orwell’s writing rules or other plain language principles. Get your entries in before 31 July!
And remember, it only takes a sentence!