Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis
Lewis wrote to a young girl dated June 26, 1956. Joan, had apparently described a very special night in her letter and then asked Lewis a few questions about writing.
Lewis responded positively to Joan’s writing:
“You describe the place & the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well—and not the thing itself—the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described.”[i]
“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.”
One might interpret Lewis here suggesting that the experience of beauty or wonder compels description and that we find ourselves not describing the thing itself, but our experience of it.
Five Things that Really Matter in 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 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.
On Playing By Ear
Lewis valued the “sound and savour” of language, and trusted his ears rather than relying on strict rules of composition.
He listened to the writing, and watched for “mystery” in the lines. Writing to his friend Arthur Greeves about looking up a poem Lewis writes:
I at once looked up the poem ‘The Gift of Song’ which you mentioned, and I thoroughly agree with you. It has a beautiful dreamy movement and the sound follows the sense exactly; also, what is more it has that depth and mystery which a lyric should have if you are to read it again and again.”
On the value of savor and sound Lewis writes to his father:
So far my readings both in Latin and Greek have been a pleasant surprise: I have forgotten less than I feared, and once I get the sound and savour of the language into my head by a spell of reading, composition should not come too hard either.
On trusting the sounds of language, Lewis writes to Arthur once more:
I am afraid I don’t know the difference between a final and consecutive clause in English or Latin!–I always do what sounds right in either, but of course you can’t begin that way.
Sources: C. S Lewis and Walter Hooper, Collected Letters (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 766; Lewis, C. S.. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 1 . HarperCollins.