Monday, September 25, 2017

C. S. Lewis: Advice on Writing

In the little volume C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children, the editors include a number of his letters to a young woman named Joan. From his side of their correspondence, it is clear she was an aspiring writer. (I wonder what became of her in adulthood.) In one letter he includes a short list of writing tips which I found convicting instructive:

  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 (p. 64).
As a doting aunt who has frequent occasion to talk with my youngest nephews, I find it interesting throughout these letters what a straight-shooter Lewis is with the children who take books and writing seriously. He doesn't coddle or condescend but gives their work the respect of honest criticism as well as honest praise. I can learn from that, as well as from the investment he made over years in the lives of young people he only ever met through his books and exchanged letters.

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