C.S. Lewis on Writing

by Steve Laube

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

  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 things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “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

Source: C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, p. 64

Every writer should heed this advice.
This past weekend I was privileged to be a part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation retreat and writer’s workshop outside Houston at Camp Allen. Every conference has a different flavor but this one is so marinated in the richness of C.S. Lewis that it is like no other. Intellectually stimulating and spiritually challenging…I have been blessed. If you have the opportunity, considering attending the event next year. It is more than learning about craft it is also immersing oneself in art, creativity, music and dance.In the meantime, enjoy reading C.S. Lewis’ essay Three Ways of Writing for Children.

12 Responses to C.S. Lewis on Writing

  1. TC Avey October 31, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    Wonderful, I really like the advice on number 4!
    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Peter DeHaan October 31, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    These are great tips for writers to follow.

    (Given this, I wonder why I have trouble understanding some of the things Lewis wrote.)

  3. Kenneth Hunter October 31, 2011 at 7:17 am #

    Lewis’ advice reminds me very much (though not “infinitely”)of Strunk and White’s as found in “The Elements of Style.”
    And I agree with both sources. I only wish I always exemplified what it prescribes.

  4. Katharine October 31, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    This is the perfect advice to start Nano! Thanks! Sigh, now if only I could follow it!

  5. Lindsay Harrel October 31, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    Thanks for posting. I learned a lot of these rules in journalism school–write simply and avoid unnecessary words.

    As Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” (Not literally, of course!) :)

  6. Loree Huebner October 31, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lenore Buth October 31, 2011 at 9:28 am #

    This reminder of essential principles starts the week off on the right note. Thanks, Steve.

  8. Sheila Haemmerle October 31, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    I loved reading the C.S. Lewis essay, Three Ways of Writing for Children. Written decades ago, it held the encouragement and direction I needed for today. And once again, God shows Himself timeless with an added touch of humor in putting my questions to rest.

    Steve, thanks so much for passing this along.

  9. Kariss Lynch October 31, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

    That was encouraging and helps me refocus in my writing. I visited Eagle and Child’s pub where Lewis and Tolkien used to meet when I was in England in the spring. This man knew what he was doing.

  10. Ruth Douthitt November 1, 2011 at 8:23 am #

    Excellent advice! I have a tendency to use too many adjectives and adverbs. This blog post will help!

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