Writing With C. S. Lewis
- Friday, November 30, 2012
Lewis continued his letter to this child by sharing five insights about writing. The five principles he listed are still valuable tools for teachers and parents who are struggling with how to start teaching their students to write. Let’s examine Lewis’s advice:
1. “Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”
Clear, effective writing is what makes readers want more. Readers do not want to wonder if they are interpreting a passage incorrectly. If your sentence is ambiguous, it will confuse the readers and complicate their comprehension of your message. It may even confuse you, as the writer.
If you question if a passage you have written is clear or not, have someone else look at it. Thoughts often make sense in your own brain, but as you put them into words for others to read, sometimes you get a different result. As a writer, you should ask questions like these: What will make sense to someone who has no knowledge of this subject? Am I describing my feelings, thoughts, or experiences, or am I teaching them to others so that they will be able to think in a similar manner?
2. “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”
We already have established the fact that your basic message and all of your sentences need to be clear; your individual words must be clear as well. Just because a word is long and sounds smart doesn’t mean it is the smart choice. Your job is not to show off your vocabulary, necessarily, but to paint a picture in the mind of the reader. If a plain word helps you accomplish this goal, then by all means, use it.
3. “Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean ‘More people died’ don’t say ‘Mortality rose.’ ”
The words you use will influence your readers, whether for good or bad. Readers are interested in the story, the facts, and the characters, yes. But if you force them to writhe in a pit of trite and tedious words, the average reader will quickly lose interest and likely put down the story, possibly never to pick it up again. Often, a phrase or word that is used merely for the sake of sounding fancy will only detract from the actual passage. Simplify your words and no one will be confused.
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.’ ”
This is the most important step of all. As a writer, you must learn to distinguish between that which tells and that which describes. “Telling” is not sufficient. Telling does not inspire the imagination; it does not stimulate creativity. Stating a fact, in a cold, businesslike manner may work well for a technical research paper, but simply telling, or conveying information, is inadequate with most forms of writing. Description is essential. Compelling descriptions motivate the reader to imagine, create, and enjoy the passage much more. A description gives the reader an opportunity to experience what you as the writer have fully realized, while merely providing information cannot begin to convey the emotion of one’s message.
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.”
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