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C. S. Lewis on How to Write


In 1954, C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to Cynthia Donnelly about the role of Christianity in his or anyone’s writing:

'We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn’t all write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story. When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it: It was first and foremost a good wheel. Don’t try to ‘bring in’ specifically Christian bits: if God wants you to serve him in that way (He may not: there are different vocations) you will find it coming in of its own accord. If not, well—a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, just like cooking a good nourishing meal. . . . Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit hutches) can be done to the glory of God.'

But what of the ‘honest workmanship’ behind Lewis’s triumphantly successful writings? Lewis did offer specific suggestions about how to write well at various times.

For example, in a letter to Joan Lancaster (June 26, 1956), a young American girl who had written to him for advice on writing, he made several very concrete points about the kind of language to use:

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. ’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.'

In the later 1950s, a teacher assigned her class to write to a famous author for tips about writing. A young girl called Thomasine wrote to C. S. Lewis, and he replied with several pieces of specific advice:

1. ’Turn off the Radio.’

Lewis has written and spoken elsewhere about the distractions of the modern world, particularly the ‘wireless’ or radio. By tuning in to the world’s problems as transmitted through the media, one was sure to become diverted from writing, which is usually a solitary task requiring peace and quiet.

2. ’Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.’

As one of the most widely-read men of the twentieth century, Lewis had no problem with this one. He had grown up in a household full of books and was not limited as to what he was able to read, and then went on to become a professor of literature. Only by becoming familiar with great writers can one judge correctly the quality of any writing.

3. 'Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.’

Most readers ‘verbalise’ the words on a page, even though they may not be aware of it. Reading to oneself silently or aloud is one way of addressing this. Lewis of course read most of his fiction aloud to a small group of intellectual friends at Oxford University, and so put his work through a critical regime before finalising it.

4. 'Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about . . .)’

There are two point in one here. Writing about what interests you is a little more intriguing than it seems. If something interests you, it is because it has some power to attract your attention. If it can attract your attention, chances are that it is attracting the attention of others too. Seeking out the things that attract others’ attention is one way of writing something, but the better way, according to Lewis, is to use your own attractions as a guide. Secondly, though, he points out that the subject of writing itself is effectively ‘subjectless’: putting one’s attention on it is like focusing on each word one is saying while one is saying it, or each breath one takes while it is being breathed - soon the natural rhythm will be interrupted and the product disrupted. Focus on the subject and the words will flow.

5. 'Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know—the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.’

This is quite a difficult thing to achieve, especially in fiction. A writer of non-fiction is usually trying to communicate about something which has its own patterns of logic and clarity is easier to accomplish when referring to matters of fact or theory. When it comes to made-up things, though, clarity becomes uncertain. A fiction author is attempting to communicate something which originates entirely within the author’s own mind. It is most important that such an author learns the language of fiction - not the spoken or written language of the reader, like English or French, but the conventions, patterns and rhythms which readers are expecting to hear and see in order to fully grasp what the author is trying to say. This is much trickier, though books like How Stories Really Work are designed to help.

6. ’When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.'

This can lead to filing cabinets full of notes, but if that is what it takes, so be it.

7. ’Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.'

Lewis spoke the words out ahead of writing them down - he used an ink pen - and believed that a writer should learn to whisper the words ahead of committing them to the page. Apparently the Narnia books were written in this way: they were spoken into existence. This runs contrary to our computer keyboard-based existence, and suggests that one needs to ‘slow down’ a little to achieve effective fiction, which may be the case.

8. ’Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.’

Possessed of a huge vocabulary, Lewis was an author who didn’t hold back in using it. But there is never any question that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. A large vocabulary grows large through the effective use of a good dictionary. Get a comprehensive one which you like, let it grow into being your friend, and you will find many doors opening as a result.

Then, in his final interview in May, 1963), six months before he died, he responded to a question by Sherwood Wirt, who asked, 'How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?’ Lewis wrote:

'The way for a person to develop a style is to know exactly what he wants to say, and 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 reader will most certainly go into it.'

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