Orwell's Rules for Writing [Requirements]

Published: 14 June 2015


In April 1946, an article titled Politics and the English Language by the English author George Orwell was published in the journal Horizon.  In it, he railed against the use of vague and over-stylized language in political speech and journalism, with the paragraph below providing a sample of the tone and content of the article.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called PACIFICATION. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called TRANSFER OF POPULATION or RECTIFICATION OF FRONTIERS. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ELIMINATION OF UNRELIABLE ELEMENTS. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. [1]

His main point was an argument that the 'decline' in the English language as used in journalism and politics was both a symptom of, and a contributor to, the decline of English civilization.  The article ends with the paragraph below in which Orwell appeals for readers to consciously improve their use of English as a way of improving their civilization:

… one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language-and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase–some JACKBOOT, ACHILLES' HEEL, HOTBED, MELTING POT, ACID TEST, VERITABLE INFERNO or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs. [1]

So if you have read this far, no doubt you are thinking What does this have to do with requirements?  The answer to that comes towards the end of Orwell's article when he provides six rules for improving English writing.  And these rules are just as applicable to writing good requirements as they were [and are] to improving political journalism.

Those rules are: [1]

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which people 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 barbarous

Rule 5 might get some argument from business analysts in regards to common business terms, or terms common amongst the stakeholders they are working with.  Especially if you have defined that term in a glossary contained within the requirements document.  But I think an argument can be made even then that if there is a common, everyday word that can be substituted and still have the requirement be accurate, you should use the common word.  As business analysts we tend to forget that there will be developers, testers, and other readers of a requirements document who may not be as familiar with business terms as the main stakeholders are, and who may bring unconscious prejudices for the meaning of business terms that you [or they] may not be aware of.  So if you can use plain language, it's often best to do so.

Or to put all of this another way, consider these three guidelines on technical writing and just replace the word sentence with requirement: [2]

Of course, this is not an argument in any way to sacrifice clarity.  Orwell's rule 6 against saying anything barbarous should be interpreted by BA's as a rule against saying anything unclear.  When more words provide more clarity use them.  But when more words don't add to clarity and specificity, don't use them.

A large part of our jobs as business analysts revolves around communication.  So don't just look to other business analysts or others who work in the project arena for ways to help you do your job better.  Expand your scope.  Who knows, you might even find something useful in a nearly 70-year old article.  I know I did. I  hope you did too.  And if you want to read the whole article, see the link below.

Thank you for reading. And as always, your feedback is welcome.

  1. Article: Politics and the English Language. By George Orwell. Horizon (volume 13, issue 76, pages 252–265).
  2. Wikiversity Course: Technical Writing. By various authors. Accessed on June 14, 2015.

© 2015 by David Olson