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5 Writing Tips From C.S. Lewis

If you don’t like C.S. Lewis, what’s wrong with you? From what far away land of haters did you come?

But that’s neither here nor there. Even if you weren’t into the Narnia books and don’t care to read Lewis’s Christian nonfiction, you’ve got to admit the guy was an impressive writer, right? His creativity and imagination alone in writing the Narnia series is astounding.

I’m a big Lewis fan, so when I saw this letter he wrote in response to a young girl’s fan mail, my heart was warmed (Please excuse the awful passive voice in that sentence. My editor is underpaid.)

It’s such a friendly, warm letter which made me like Lewis even more as a person. The best part of the letter is the 5 writing tips he gives to the young girl in closing. These are outstanding, insightful tips.

  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.

His fourth tip is so important for a fiction writer. It goes back to the “Show. Don’t Tell.” technique that is taught in creative writing. Even as a nonfiction writer, I think it’s great advice. I can’t tell you how often I fall back into writing lazy adjectives.

And I can sum up #2 this way. Next time you write “utilize,” cross it out and write “use” instead. When you try to sound more professional, you usually end up sounding more amateur. Though I’m over using utilize (see what happened there?), I still catch myself trying to sound too formal and stuffy sometimes.

Any of his tips stand out to you?

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29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post. I read the Chronicles of Narnia to my children when they were young and they have passed that on to theirs. The advice is very worth remembering.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  2. The book that gave me the urge to read everything I could find was “Prince Caspian”. It took me the rest of my childhood and some of my teenage years to find the rest of the sceries, but the searching was an education. I still have the books. I very much like tip number 4 – it has changed how this is being written. I now sometimes wonder how it would have been to sit a silent observer in the Bird and Babe (commonly used title in Oxford, but formally known as the Eagle and Child) when the Inklings were there. I think it would be close to magic, don’t you?

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  3. My daughter (11) likes to write. She reads well-written novels, including the Narnia series, and, therefore, instinctively writes well. Unfortunately, poor writing is encouraged in schools here. The national standard test for her age group gives marks for using adjectives. For using them, not for using them well. She recently wrote a poem of which she was proud. It was spare, to the point, and used powerful verbs instead of ordinary ones + adjectives. Her tutor corrected it by adding adjectives to every verb, ruining the metre and the power.
    I will show her Lewis’s tips. Thanks for another enjoyable and well-written post.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  4. Jeff is reading one of his bios right now (The Narnian) and says it’s a good, really tough read. Written by a literary critic.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  5. I’m glad you found the Letters of Note blog. It’s one of my favorite sites, and this letter of Lewis’ that they posted was one of their better posts (in my opinion as a Lewis fan). He has a way of making even simple things (from stories to sentences) magical.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  6. Honestly, the best one is #4. I’ve been told my entire writing career to use less adjectives. They are so much fun to use intellectually while writing, but they are so very flat mentally while reading. They invoke absolutely no emotional response whatsoever. All they do is describe, something you could get from a dictionary. Great post. Thank you for sharing. I will start “implementing” this writing to do list immediately.

    Hhmm. Maybe I need to start taking #2 to heart as well…

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  7. Amy #

    I haven’t read C. S. Lewis, though The Cronicles of Narnia And The Screwtape Letters are on my to-read list. I love these tips. #4 is my favorite.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  8. I’m not much of a writer, so I can’t really comment on the tips, though they certainly sound useful, and worth keeping in mind for the few times I need to write to someone. I’ve always found C.S. Lewis’s allegories truly wonderful, though I have been less satisfied by his non-fiction.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  9. Thank you sharing views I may not have thought about otherwise.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  10. Hi, yes it’s me again. I feel like you always make a good point in each one of your blogs (most since I started to follow you.). I’m delighted to hear about Clive Staples Lewis (delighted is exactly what I mean), because I’m a big fan of his. I loved The ScrewTape Letters and The Great Divorce. I fell in love with his “adult fantasy”. “Out of the Silent Planet, Malecandra and Perelandra, (i think in that order)” . His mentor, Goerge McDonald, I think considered the first well-published/known fantasy writer I love even more. His short stories entertained me, as well as, gave me room for my own speculation. C.S.Lewis definately on a less flexible path. But I have a book, “The Quotable Lewis,” I retrieved it from a junky’s old apartment. Interesting. I’m not down with that stuff, I helped to clean it. What a gift!!!
    Here is a quote that I like: because I’m self-centered and it means a lot to me.
    “The more ‘up to date’ a book is, the sooner it will be dated” (Letters to Arthur Greeves 17 Aug. 1933). OR “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it once” (Letters… Feb. 1932.) Goerge Orwell, I recently read for a class) has an essay including like 66 don’t do suggestions for the sentance. Clive’s five Orwell included taking credit from them… thank you for the stroll down memory lane. I’ve read my fav of all fav books like seven, at least, seven times. I love to read. (and write).

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  11. I’m thinking about writing this on the wall above my desk, so I will be reminded each day before sitting down for the day’s writing. Great post.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  12. A great post. C.S. Lewis was an amazing author and it’s great to know that people still listen to what he has to say. I just reread The Chronicles of Narnia for fun. It has been years since I picked up those books, but it was a true pleasure to visit them once again.

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  13. He was brilliant to me~ especially Screwtape Letters! Fantastic post! ~Deborah

    Like

    April 17, 2012
  14. Oops. And I of course meant adverbs not adjectives. Oh dear. Shame on me. But the point is the same…

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  15. Numbers 1, 4 and 5 seem the most poignant to me. Part of the reason I don’t write fiction is that I can’t seem to master 4, of course Lewis wrote the book (pun intended) on descriptive writing.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  16. I’ve just finished reading Hugh Walpole’s The Dark Forest and I was surprised by the number of episodes he began by telling you what to expect, breaking C.S.Lewis’s fourth rule. But I think you have to be a good writer to know when to break the rules too.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  17. yearningtoread #

    aaaaaaaahh C. S. Lewis. I love these tips!! Thanks for sharing! 😀

    Like

    April 19, 2012
  18. AhmadHamam #

    Reblogged this on ahmadahamam.

    Like

    April 20, 2012
  19. Love this post! C.S. Lewis is a genius.

    Like

    November 3, 2013
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    October 21, 2014
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    July 18, 2015

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