If ever someone epitomized the term “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 would often share their feelings about Narnia and ask questions about the characters or writing in general. One such child was Joan Lancaster.
As was always his way, Lewis did not talk down to Joan. 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 advice, Lewis wrote:
1. Avoid vagueness.
2. Use the clearest word possible.
3. Prefer concrete nouns.
4. Describe instead of tell.
5. Don’t overstate.
If you would rather read him in his own words (and who wouldn’t), here is the relevant text of the letter Lewis sent to Joan in 1956 (via Letters of Note).
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.
Lewis’ advice is similar to George Orwell’s. The author of Animal Farm and 1984 wrote about four habits to break to improve your writing and six questions every writer should ask about every sentence.
Which of those pieces of advice is the most difficult for you to follow? What other statements have helped you improve your writing?