Family Notes 13/04/2016



C. S. Lewis was first known as a university professor of English literature and literary criticism. Over the years, he offered some useful tips for Christians who wished to become skilled writers. Here, then, in reverse order, are what I consider the top ten tips for writers from C. S. Lewis. My summary is inserted at the beginning of each suggestion in bold face type. Lewis’ tip, or rule, or suggestion is indented, in quotes, and/or in italics. My comments follow at the end.

10–Be very clear.

“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.”

A seventh-grade teacher assigned her students to write a letter to a famous author requesting that person’s advice. A student named Thomasine wrote to C. S. Lewis. Lewis responded to Thomasine with a letter dated December 14, 1959. That letter to the seventh-grader named Thomasine provides our choice for the #10 spot in the Top Ten Tips, and also Tips # 4, #7, and #8.

09–Do not overstate.

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.”

A young American girl named Joan Lancaster was one of many people who asked Lewis for advice on writing. This Tip #9, plus Tips #2, #3, #5, and #6 come from C. S. Lewis’ letter dated June 26, 1956 in response.

08–Follow your interests.

“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 . . .)”

An exception to this Top Tip #8 is the person whose only interest is herself (or himself.)


“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.”

(Borrowed from Thomasine.) I compose by reading sentences aloud, with an ear attuned to their rhythm. Read that one aloud, and this one as well, and see if you hear what I mean.)

06–Choose concrete nouns over abstract ones.

Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean: ‘More people died,’ don’t say: ‘Mortality rose.

From Lewis’ letter to Joan Lancaster, dated June 26, 1956.

05–Evoke feelings, don’t name them.

“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.”

From Lewis’ letter to Joan Lancaster, dated June 26, 1956.

04–Feed your mind.

“Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.”

03–Be plain.

“Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one.

I think that means avoid sentences like “Eschew obsfucation.”

From Lewis’ letter to Joan Lancaster, dated June 26, 1956.

02–Be precise to be clear.

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.”

From Lewis’ letter to Joan Lancaster, dated June 26, 1956.

01–As a Christian writer, seek excellence and not religiosity.

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 . . . When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it: It was first and foremost a good wheel . . . 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.

C. S. Lewis’ Top Tip #1 for Writers comes from a letter he wrote on August 14, 1954 to a lady named Cynthia Donnelly.