C. S. Lewis on Good Writing

Signature of CS Lewis.

Image via Wikipedia

Lewis was a diligent reader of writing samples submitted to him, both from close friends and from complete strangers. He offered general evaluative remarks, but also comments on specific lines and particular word choices. Sometimes he replied by offering a quick primer on the art of writing. To a little girl from Florida he offered these five principles:

  • “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.”
  • “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t say implement promises, but keep them.”
  • Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean ‘more people died,’ don’t say ‘mortality rose.’
  • “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.” Under this heading, Lewis goes on to say that the writing should delight readers, not just label an event delightful; or it should make them feel terror, not just to learn that an event was terrifying. He says that emotional labeling is really just a way of asking readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’
  • “Don’t use words that are too big for the subject.” Lewis illustrates this point by saying if you use infinitely as an intensifier instead of the simple word very, you won’t have any word left when you need to describe something that is truly infinite. (CL, 3, 766).

Another interesting snippet of this blog post concerns Lewis’s prolific correspondence:

As he became increasingly renowned in his later years, Lewis was inundated with letters on just about every topic imaginable—from spiritual direction to Spinoza to spelling. He did his best to answer as many letters as he could, though this became an onerous task. Lewis explained to one correspondent that he had answered 35 letters that day; on a different occasion, he noted that he had spent 14 hours that day catching up on his correspondence (CL 2, 509; 3, 1152).

— David Downing, “The Sound and Savor” of Words: Lewis on the Art of Writing at the C. S. Lewis blog

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]
Enhanced by Zemanta

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Good Writing

    • Hi Travis,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve read George Sayer’s biography of Lewis, but not Hooper and Green’s. I should add it to my to-get list of books. It looks like you’re following in Lewis’s footsteps with your work at Oxford. For a fan of Lewis, it seems the ultimate place to be. I understand that Wheaton, here in Chicago, houses the Wade collection of many of Lewis’s writings — along with his writing desk — which is as close to Oxford as we come in my neck of the woods. : )
      By the way, if you’re ever interested in doing a guest post on Lewis (or a related topic), please let me know. You can email me at c.l.reese7@gmail.com.
      Chris

      • I should clarify: I was only at Oxford for a term through a study-abroad program. But yes, for a Lewis fan, for me, it was the highlight of my life.

        I’ve heart a lot about the Marion Wade Center, but have not yet had a chance to visit. Some day….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s