C. S. Lewis on writing

From C. S. Lewis’ letter (June 26, 1956) to an American girl named Joan Lancaster:

  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 things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “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.

— C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children

Excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ interview (May 7, 1963) with Sherwood Eliot Wirt:

Professor Lewis, if you had a young friend with some interest in writing on Christian subjects, how would you advise him to prepare himself?
“I would say if a man is going to write on chemistry, he learns chemistry. The same is true of Christianity. But to speak of the craft itself, I would not know how to advise a man how to write. It is a matter of talent and interest. I believe he must be strongly moved if he is to become a writer. Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out.”

A light touch has been characteristic of your writings, even when you are dealing with heavy theological themes. Would you say there is a key to the cultivation of such an attitude?
“I believe this is a matter of temperament. However, I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages, and by the writings of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton, for example, was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce.”

Should Christian writers, then, in your opinion, attempt to be funny?
“No. I think that forced jocularities on spiritual subjects are an abomination, and the attempts of some religious writers to be humorous are simply appalling. Some people write heavily, some write lightly. I prefer the light approach because I believe there is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matters; too much speaking in holy tones.”

But is not solemnity proper and conducive to a sacred atmosphere?
“Yes and no. There is a difference between a private devotional life and a corporate one. Solemnity is proper in church, but things that are proper in church are not necessarily proper outside, and vice versa. For example, I can say a prayer while washing my teeth, but that does not mean I should wash my teeth in church.”

How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?
“The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.”

Do you believe that the Holy Spirit can speak to the world through Christian writers today?
“I prefer to make no judgment concerning a writer’s direct ‘illumination’ by the Holy Spirit. I have no way of knowing whether what is written is from heaven or not. I do believe that God is the Father of lights — natural lights as well as spiritual lights (James 1:17). That is, God is not interested only in Christian writers as such. He is concerned with all kinds of writing. In the same way a sacred calling is not limited to ecclesiastical functions. The man who is weeding a field of turnips is also serving God.”

— “Cross-Examination,” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley

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