C.S. Lewis’ Advice For Writers
Here’s some tidbits of advice from C.S. Lewis on writing well. Lewis had a knack for expressing profound truths clearly, plainly, and memorably. He knew how to use language beautifully to grip readers, evoke emotion, paint a picture, and draw you into his thoughts and world. Writers and preachers alike should heed his advice.
C.S. Lewis’s last interview was on May 7, 1963—six months before he died. One of Sherwood Wirt’s questions was on writing: “How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?” Lewis responded:
The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.
The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.
I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.
Here’s advice on writing from a couple of C.S. Lewis’ letters:
“Letter of 26 June 1956,” Collected Letters, Volume III, pp. 765-766.
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t 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’
- 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.’
- 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.
“Letter of 14 December 1959,” Collected Letters, Volume III, pp. 1108-1109.
- Turn off the Radio.
- Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
- Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You shd. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
- Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about . . .)
- Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know — the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.
- When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.
- Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.
- Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.