I was probably no more than 8 years old as I was watching a favorite movie in which one of the main characters was a writer. She was suffering from writer’s block—that horrible feeling of just itching to write something . . . but without anything dripping out of the end of your pen. This character decided to inspire herself by making a list of potential titles for the book she was hoping to write. 

It seemed to work for her—almost immediately her fingers began to fly across her big black typewriter. However, when her friend noticed this, he immediately criticized her. His response was, in essence: “You must write the book first, then make the title. No title—an insignificant few words—will give birth to an entire book.”

Now that little statement bothered me then, and it continues to bother me more than twelve years later. What was so wrong with writing the title of the book before she wrote the book? Sure, it was not a traditional method—but did that make it wrong?

Even then, at a young age (when my writing efforts were characterized by illegible text scribbled on pieces of notebook paper tied together with pretty ribbons), I came to this conclusion: writing cannot be taught simply by applying a system of arbitrary rules. Instead, each writer must find the tools that he feels most comfortable with. It is not up to a conceited (yes, conceited—like the friend of the girl in the movie!) individual to develop another’s inspirational process.

“Whatever works for you”—that is a phrase that we avoid like the plague when it comes to morality and life choices, but that little phrase is the key to successful writing. If you can succeed at writing by using your own unique methods, then use your own methods, please! If your method is to make up a title first and extrapolate to create your finished manuscript, then use that method. If your method is to write paragraphs, out of order, and piece them together later, use that method. If your method is to create characters first and then weave them into the plot, then use that method. If your method is to scribble notes on yellow sticky notes, then do it. This is the wonderful thing about creative writing; it encourages self-exploration, and it is through this process that you discover the kind of writer—and person—you are. 

The skill of writing is not something you are born with, although some of us are naturally more comfortable with writing. Writing is still taught. But if there are no arbitrary methods, you may ask, how can writing be taught? After all, didn’t I just say writing is a sort of “free for all”? Not exactly. However, it’s easier to teach writing than many teachers, parents, and students realize. It is a foundational skill, one that advances in complexity as additional skills and experience are gained. The basics can be taught, but the writer has to apply those basics and then “learn” the complexity for himself.

To examine some writing basics, take a look at some advice given by a writer himself. Edgar Degas said to “copy and re-copy the masters.” He was talking about art, but his statement can easily be applied to writing. C. S. Lewis was a master of writing—as a writer of poetry, fiction, and scholarly works, and as a Professor of Literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. 

Lewis also was an avid letter writer who befriended many children through his letters, encouraging them in their writing pursuits. In 1956, he responded to a little girl who asked numerous questions regarding writing. Lewis wrote: “Of course there are no right and wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic . . . don’t take any notice of teachers and text-books in such matters.”1 If we are not supposed to take notice of teachers and textbooks (in other words, those arbitrary rules that someone, somewhere, used to define “good English”), what are we to take notice of when writing?

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.” 

C. S. Lewis’s example is humorous, and it is also true.  We have talked about vague and unclear words. What about words that express your meaning but are just big words? Is there anything wrong with using big words? No, of course not—in their proper places. Your reader will grow tired of sifting through big words, and frequently the little ones work just as well. Sometimes those little words just flow better. Words exist because they have meaning; they were created to efficiently convey specific ideas—whether they have three letters or fifteen!

As a writer, you must be able to write thoughts that people can connect with. It is the writer’s responsibility to make sure that everything he writes could be affirmed by any number of people. In other words, his writing needs to be relational. There should be a bridge between what flows from the end of a writer’s pen and what flows through the reader’s head. Thus, you need to use clear and simple phrases, without making it overly flowery or poetic. 

Use standard, written English, but don’t get bogged down with petty grammatical rules. Write, and try not to worry about whether or not your participle is dangling. You can always go look that up later, but for now, just write as your message or story idea comes to you. Don’t let your writing turn into what Lewis called “a perpetual witch hunt for Americanisms, Gallicisms, split infinitives, and sentences that end with a preposition . . . . [Those who write like this] do not inquire whether the Americanism or Gallicisms in question increases or impoverishes the expressiveness of our language. It is nothing to them that the best English speakers and writers have been ending sentences with prepositions for over a thousand years.”2

Don’t miss the point of expressive writing by making it more complicated than it is. As a teacher or parent, remind your students about this often. As a writer, learn it for yourself. When you are able to grasp this axiom, your writing will become clear, smooth, expressive, and most of all, meaningful to the reader.

My fictional friend was dissuaded from using a title to influence the direction of her book. She was in the right, though—not only because she was inspired by her own methodology, but also because she realized that the influence of mere words is, after all, so important in writing—even if those words in the title function only as a guide for the author himself! Fellow writers, pay careful attention to that guideline. As you embark on the journey of learning, remember that your goal is to communicate with your readers—but you get to choose how you do it. You are the author!

Endnotes:

1. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, ed., C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children (Scribner, 1996).

2.  C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Copyright 2011, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com  or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your Kindle Fire or Apple or Android devices.

Emily Nowak is a homeschool graduate and junior literature major at Patrick Henry College. She is an avid reader of C. S. Lewis and plans to be a high school English teacher. Emily is from Churchton, Maryland, where she enjoys reading, writing, and teaching.

Publication date: November 30, 2012