5 Tips from C.S. Lewis to be a Better Writer

C.S. Lewis

If ever someone epitomized what it means to be a “writer,” it was C.S. Lewis.

He wrote emotionally engaging fiction across several genres. His theological and apologetic writing is still read and discussed 50 years after his death. Those in his field of study still use and consult his academic writing.

On top of all of this, he wrote hundreds of letters. He made it a priority to respond to every letter ever written to him. Because of this, we have so much more information about who he was as a person and about his views on certain topics.

Some of his greatest letters were responses to children who were Narnia fans. They would often share their feelings about the books and ask questions about the characters or writing in general. One such child was Joan Lancaster.

Joan wrote about Aslan and the rest of Narnia, but she was interested in how to become a better writer. As was always his way, Lewis did not talk down to her, but he gave her some introductory information and then listed five ways she could be a better writer.

His advice was good for Joan as a kid in the 1950s and is still good for us as adults today. To sum up his recommendations to her:

1.Use the clearest word possible.

Help the reader out by making the meaning of your sentence obvious.

2. Avoid vague words.

Plain words give the reader a better picture. Why say “utilize” when you mean “use”?

3. Choose concrete nouns.

Speak directly about your subject instead of using euphemisms.

4. Describe don’t tell.

Use the right word pictures that elicit the proper response from the reader. Instead of saying something is “terrible,” describe it so the reader feels terrified.

5. Stop overstating.

Choose the word best suited for the situation, not the one most likely to draw immediate attention. Otherwise, you limit yourself in the future.

If you would rather read him in his own words (and who wouldn’t), here is the text of the letter Lewis sent to Joan in 1956 (via Letters of Note).

Dear Joan–

Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.

About amn’t Iaren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!

What really matters is:–

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.

Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you’ll like your new home.

With love
yours
C.S. Lewis

Which of those pieces of advice is the most difficult for you to follow? What other statements have helped you improve your writing?

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.