C. S. Lewis: On Writing Well
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
In a personal letter dated June 26, 1956, and published in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Mr. Lewis responded to a Ms. Joan Lancaster’s questions about some of the finer points of grammar:
“What really matters,” he wrote to her, “is the following.”
“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.”
“Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”
“Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean ‘more people died’ don’t say ‘mortality rose’.”
“… Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing…. Instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified….”
“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.” (page 766 in Collected Letters)
Sometimes I am appalled when I recall some of my own writing as an undergraduate. I remember an English professor writing at the top of one of my papers, “Just as an exercise, you might try writing some paragraphs using only one- and two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words.”
I’m not sure I even knew what to imagine.
I do know this. When I’m writing my Rebecca novels, much of my self-editing looks exactly like what is implied by Mr. Lewis’s advice to Ms. Lancaster. I am forever removing phrases (i.e., shortening the text), removing adjectives (i.e., further shortening the text), choosing more straightforward words, and, above all, asking myself, “Would this character really talk like this to this other person?”
The answer is usually No, not exactly.
Since my novels are Christian-themed (in the sense that the protagonists are overtly Christian people), I will add this closely related citation, also from C. S. Lewis. In a letter first published in The Christian Century on 31 December 1958, he wrote this: “Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it, or you don’t believe it.” (reproduced on page 1007 in Collected Letters).
That quotation has 31 words. Of the 31 words, 23 are one syllable.
Could there be a better illustration of what he meant?
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