C.S. Lewis on Writing

C.S. Lewis's Drawing Room at The Kilns, his Oxford home

“What really matters is: —

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure y[ou]r. 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.”

 

-C.S. Lewis, letter to “Joan”, 26 June 1959.  Reprinted in C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Majorie Lamp Mead, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.

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One Response

  1. YAY C.S. Lewis! Numbers 2 and 3 remind me of an exercise I like to try, which is to express myself purely in 1-syllable words. It is a fun way to make your thoughts clear, or at least to try.

    I got the idea from this quote by G.K. Chesterton from “Orthodoxy” (long quote, sorry!):

    “It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard.”

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