Rigour, Precision And Critical Thinking

George Orwell first appeared in my life when I was about 18, when a copy of 1984 made it into one of my coffee-book-and-cookie binges at the massive Borders store near my home.

Over the course of his final and most famous novel, Georgie boy shattered any remains of my youthful naïveté, and replaced it with a deep skepticism and distrust of people who worship at the feet of celebrity and power.

There have been times since then that I’ve really resented him for this.

It’s nice to live in a bubble, you see. Skepticism is very tiring. Constant defence against cults of personality takes a lot of practice and energy in our celeb-obsessed world.

But, I forgive.

Orwell has probably had more effect on me than any other writer. The clarity and precision of his writing, his incisive view on politics and the human animal, his utter disdain for authoritarianism — all of it has decisively shaped my world view and my own writing.

And while 1984Animal Farm and Down and Out In Paris and London might be his most famous works, and rightly acclaimed, it is his essays that have impacted me the most.

‘Books vs Cigarettes’, ‘Why I Write’, and most importantly, ‘Politics and the English Language’ have inspired, provoked and challenged me to think better, write better, aspire further.

I revisit ‘Politics and the English Language’ every year or so, because it reminds me of the power and responsibility every writer wields.

Every time I read it, I feel like Orwell is reaching out across time to grab a fistful of my shirt and shake me, fixing me with his pale eyes and exhorting me not to let the fires he started go out.

To throw all my effort into bringing precision, rigour and critical thinking to my work.

To look at uncomfortable truths without flinching, and to help others do the same.

To strip away the euphemism and pretension that obscure the facts, that try to make something palatable out of nothing at all.

Writers, perhaps more than anyone — even more than politicians, activists or business leaders — shape how people see the world.

Journalists (whether they’re writing for serious, impartial publications, tabloids, or clickbait sites), speechwriters, screenwriters, novelists, even social media content writers, all have a huge effect on their audience.

Writers control the conversation.

It’s shockingly easy to put a spin on even the simplest story.

It takes almost no effort to churn out an opinion piece — especially if you’re aiming for speed instead of precision in your meaning.

And everything we write spreads faster and further than ever before, with fewer checks and balances, and less accountability than ever before.

So you can see why it’s important to think, and write, very clearly and carefully.

The words you put into the world can have a real impact. You lose control of them the moment you hit publish, so they had better be able to stand alone, honed to have exactly the right effect.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a privilege, not a burden. It’s an incredible moment in history to be a writer — and a moment when we can have the most impact for good.

But it’s also the moment in time we need to be most careful, most diligent, most conscientious about our work.

It’s the time to think rigorously in private before expounding in public, and spend the time and energy to know our own minds — and how to defend them — before trying to change anyone else’s. 

It’s time to combine rigour, precision and critical thinking with empathy, curiosity and calm rationale.

I hope you find this exhilarating. I hope you can see the niche from which you might start to write your way into history, bringing a beam of truth, however fine, into the world with each new piece.