If there was a better English language writer of the past 100 years than C.S. Lewis, I am quite unaware of them. Very few writers have possessed Lewis’ ability to craft a sentence quite so well. As such, I have long valued his advice to would-be writers, and am glad that he regularly doled out such writing wisdom to those who sent him letters during his lifetime.

C.S. Lewis on Writing Well

One such letter was written to a young girl named Joan who aspired to be a writer one day. In his reply to young Joan, Lewis gave the following solid instruction that is equal parts grammar and style:

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.

I find Lewis’ advice still holds up quite well today…don’t you?
Source: C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, vol. 3 (New York: HarperCollins e-books; HarperSanFrancisco, 2004–2007), 766.

 

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