C.S. Lewis on Writing

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to a letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

  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 things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “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

Source: C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, p. 64

Every writer should heed this advice. Let me clarify and have a little fun, as if Lewis needs commentary!

1. The point of writing is to communicate. This is why it can be a good idea to have someone else read your words out loud to you. They may very well emphasize the words in a way you did not intend them to be read. Doesn’t mean they are wrong. It means the words can be read two different ways.

2. Lewis doesn’t want you to write blandly. You can use words that snarl or soothe. But words that obfuscate or adumbrate or are intentionally tenebrous should be eliminated.

3. Instead of “His intelligence quotient was off the charts,” you might simply write “He was smart.”

4. This is a principle of “show, don’t tell,” which works for both fiction and nonfiction. But be careful. If you tell everything, it gets flat. If you show everything, the work becomes unreadable.

5. I have no apprehension of Lewis’s assiduous literary reflections in point five. Or am I being a poltroon characterized by a hoity-toity attitude? Or maybe just exhibiting room temperature IQ?

16 Responses to C.S. Lewis on Writing

  1. Avatar
    tuviapollack October 28, 2019 at 3:10 am #

    Point 4 is gold. Some concrete examples, and a reason why one should avoid telling. It’s hard to show rather than tell, but it becomes so much better. I hope that I’m getting a little better at it every time I edit my manuscript. Maybe it will even be publishable some day.

  2. Avatar
    Molly Jo Realy October 28, 2019 at 5:16 am #

    A wonderfully on-point article. I adore C. S. Lewis and have read many of his backs. I appreciate his tips on how to be a better writer.

    • Avatar
      Linda Gowan October 29, 2019 at 4:26 am #

      Just what I needed to maMe the next book so much better

  3. Avatar
    damonjgray October 28, 2019 at 5:34 am #

    Regarding the Lewis point #4, one of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Tosca Lee’s keynote address to the West Coast Christian Writers Conference. “If I am writing a roller-coaster for readers, I have to do that screaming and peeing my pants.” Edgy? Yeah, but she got her point across, and it is precisely what Lewis was saying in point #4.

  4. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott October 28, 2019 at 6:28 am #

    #1 – I had a sign in my office, “If it can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood.” Even with that reminder, I too often used words that could, and were, misunderstood.

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 28, 2019 at 7:22 am #

    “The multitudinous waves incarnadined
    by the stellar orb descending”
    has worth that cannot be denied
    so its use I’ll be defending.
    Yes, it could be simplified:
    “The sea glowed red in the setting sun.”
    But in simplicity, something’s died,
    like my sense of writing fun.
    It’s not my job to let the reader
    approach my work with slothful cheer
    and consider my words as breather
    from where’s-the-dictionary fear.
    Arrogance is in my blood;
    that’s why I’m a writer, bud!

  6. Avatar
    sharonkconnell October 28, 2019 at 7:38 am #

    Love this, Steve. Thank you.

  7. Avatar
    Pat Butler October 28, 2019 at 7:43 am #

    “room temperature IQ” – love it.

  8. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 28, 2019 at 7:53 am #

    If I may, I’d like to add another maxim, one of which I hope Mr. Lewis would have approved.

    Let your words mirror your speech, and let their rhythm be in step with the cadence of your thoughts. Do not coerce elegance to a peasant-reel, nor constrain exuberance to a staid drawing-room Sunday. Commit to these, and you will find writer’s manna all around, and will not be constrained to a parlous existence dependent on pulling ill-found language, stinging and biting, from the places you were never meant to enter.

  9. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca October 28, 2019 at 8:14 am #

    So much wisdom in five little steps. And so much kindness that C.S. Lewis responded to a child’s letter. We can learn a lot from both.

  10. Avatar
    Nancy Jo Jenkins October 28, 2019 at 9:50 am #

    Love C S. Lewis – thank you for including his advice. I’m learning a lot by reading your blog. Thanks for helping us become better writers, Steve.

  11. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan October 28, 2019 at 1:21 pm #

    excellent reminder. Rewrites are great but they really help one look at weak words or overabundance of words no one wants. IE use CLOCK, not tocsin. I mean, really. And even foreign words are really tiresome especially when they are not translated. ugh.

  12. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 30, 2019 at 6:22 am #

    Steve, I wish C.S. Lewis had taken his own advice with his book “The Four Loves.” That is a rough document to unpack!

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