C.S. Lewis’s Tips on Writing

You may have noticed I haven’t had a post in almost 2 months. It’s been a  particularly busy term. I’ve been revising my thesis on ‘C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,’ taking a class on Thomas Aquinas, and writing essays on Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve also been submitting my applications to graduate programs at St Andrews, Duke Divinity School, Oxford, and King’s College London, as well as serving as the University Catholic Chaplaincy’s Master of Ceremonies, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society’s Vice-President (and Reviews Editor for its journal), and one of the two primary docents for tours at the Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s house nearby.

I have several blog posts in draft form, including one on how we define Christian art, but sadly they’ll have to wait a bit longer. I’m going semi-off grid for the next couple weeks before term starts, as I have to finish my thesis, study for my Aquinas collections, read several books by Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, do background reading for the capstone God, Christ & Salvation paper, catch up on a year’s worth of New Testament Greek, finish my grad school applications, and write my first couple essays of term, all within the next 15 days or so.

In the meantime, to get myself (and any other writers out there) in the mood for putting words on paper, here are some tips on writing from our favorite Narnian author, C.S. Lewis:

To a young girl

CL3 766 (Joan Lancaster, 26 Jun 1956):

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. 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 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”.

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.’

To a seventh-grader, in answer to a school assignment to ask a famous author about writing

CL3 1108-9 (Thomasine, 14 Dec 1959): ‘It is very hard to give any general advice about writing. Here’s my attempt.

(1) Turn off the Radio.

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

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

(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…)

(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.

(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 {1109} my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.

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

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

To a woman

CL3 502-3 (Cynthia Donnelly, 14 Aug 1954): ‘I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer’s duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven’t. 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 {503} 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. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)

By the way, none of my stories began with a Christian message. I always start from a mental picture – the floating islands, a faun with an umbrella in a snowy wood, an “injured” human head. Of course my non-fiction works are different. But they succeed because I’m a professional teacher and explanation happens to be one of the things I’ve learned to do.

But the great thing is to cultivate one’s own garden, to do well the job which one’s own natural capacities point out (after first doing well whatever the “duties of one’s station” impose). Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit hutches) can be done to the glory of God.’

*CL3 = The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. III, ed. Walter Hooper.

Happy New Year!

2 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’s Tips on Writing

  1. Nan,

    Permission granted. I’d be pleased if you’d include the URL of the blog.

    I’m actually submitting a shortened version of my thesis as a paper to be considered for this year’s Oxbridge. I’m a big fan of the Foundation’s work.

    Cole
    (off to lead a tour of the Kilns in an hour!)

  2. Dear Cole,

    I enjoyed this. Appreciate the research it took.
    I coordinate the C.S. Lewis Foundation Writers Workshop in Texas in the fall. Last year was our 2nd one. I’m working on this years and would like to share this with our attendees with your permission. I would, of course, attribute it.

    The foundation is holding it’s tri-annual Oxbridge this summer, July 26-Aug 4. Visit our site.

    Best wishes for your aspirations.

    Blessings…nan rinella

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