C.S. Lewis on Writing

Below appear some tips on writing that C.S. Lewis offered to a young aspiring writer–in a letter, which is in C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Children.

“Always” and “Never” will bother many writers and readers, just because most of us have encountered appropriate exceptions. Otherwise, this list might well be viewed as a kinder, gentler, crisper version of Orwell’s advice; but see what you think:

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 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.

Coda: A friend of the blog, Newt Gingrich, could stand to ponder #5, what with his compulsive use of “frankly,” “astonishingly,” “radically,” “extra-ordinarily,” and so on.

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