C.S. Lewis’ Advice on Writing

I’m currently reading C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children – a collection of the personal letters he wrote in reply to numerous young fans who wrote to him between 1944 and 1963.  It’s an uncut little gem of a book. I’m struck by the trouble Lewis took over his correspondence. It was a daily discipline that took a few hours every morning after her rose at 7.15. The other thing that strikes me (with my copy editor’s hat on) is Lewis fast and loose approach to grammar. Of course, in letters, one is less careful of grammatical niceties, but these words to a young fan are revealing, too:

… Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was! What really matters is:–

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

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6 Responses

  1. Good tips, thanks for sharing. It’s advice I try generally try to live by, whether I’m writing something for publication in a newspaper or on my blog.

    Jimmy

  2. This is infintitely ; ^ 0 better advice than any I could have found elsewhere!

  3. That’s infinitely by the way.

  4. I didn’t know about this collection–probably a grand place for an adult to start reading about writing as well.

    • Yes – The letters are worth reading for the occasional glint of gold,like the quote in this post. Children often sent Lewis their short stories and poems and he takes the trouble to critique them very fairly (not patronising at all), and that is very revealing. More impressive than anything else, though, is the author’s dedication to a habit of personally replying to anyone who wrote to him.

  5. Great suggestion! I love Lewis but hadn’t heard of this book.

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