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Some Collected Writings of C.S.Lewis - On Writing

2 months ago
Commended by mizal on 4/16/2021 9:15:09 PM

Since Lewis’ death in 1963 clerkish people from all over have been hard at work gathering up every paper the man had ever written on, to include personal correspondences, essays, and any unpublished manuscripts.  The writer himself was quite the introvert so we might imagine he would be horrified by all this. Scruples aside, rifling through the man’s personal life has unlocked a trove of perspective. What follows are transcribed passages from letters, essays, and books by C.S. Lewis on the subject of writing. To begin, some very nice advice written in a letter to a child in the summer of 1956:



“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. 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 your 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.


My understanding of this letter is that the child in question had sent Lewis something that he or she had written, which Lewis was then kind enough to read and review, adding, “I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this? One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes.”



- While I risk redundancy, he offered the following advice in an unpublished essay Cross-Examination written in 1963, the same year that he died.


“The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) 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 readers will most certainly go into it.”


The reader will of course see that Lewis has followed his own advice while giving it, and tailored how he went about presenting it to the intended audience. This was late in life, so we will now look at more privately written ideas on the subject of writing, penned many years prior.


Lewis exchanged hundreds of letters with a friend by the name of Arthur Greeves. Bedridden as a boy, and for most of his life, Arthur asked that he may have a visit from the neighbor boy. This encounter introduced Lewis to perhaps his most significant lifelong friend. Their love of literature was what bonded them, Lewis described Greeves as a sort of “Alter Ego, the man who first reveals to you that you are not alone in the world by turning out (beyond hope) to share all your most secret delights.”


They exchanged many letters on the subject of writing. Here are a few select excerpts:


“Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.” - 30 May 1916


“What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire next minute, I am so much further on.” - 14 June 1916 [Lewis was 17, Greeves was ~21]


“It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result” - 20 June 1916


“I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development. If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.” - 28 August 1930


Here is one more, specifically on the topic of creative writing:


“Returning to work on an interrupted story is not like returning to work on a scholarly article. Facts, however long the scholar has left them untouched in his notebook, will still prove the same conclusions; he has only to start the engine running again. But the story is an organism: it goes on surreptitiously growing or decaying while your back is turned. If it decays, the resumption of work is like trying to coax back to life an almost extinguished fire, or to recapture the confidence of a shy animal which you had only partially tamed at your last visit”

 -from English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Book III. 1954



I can take credit here only for taking the time to type. I hope anyone who took time to read will feel benefited. All brilliancy credited to Lewis - all typos credited to myself.

Some Collected Writings of C.S.Lewis - On Writing

2 months ago
Not a bad little read.

Some Collected Writings of C.S.Lewis - On Writing

2 months ago
I'm glad you enjoyed it. I especially like how he described the now common advise of "Show don't tell."

Some Collected Writings of C.S.Lewis - On Writing

2 months ago
I feel like number two is super relevant to newer writers. Too often people think good writing = more words. It comes across as pretentious and ultimately is just fluff that doesn't add much.

Some Collected Writings of C.S.Lewis - On Writing

2 months ago
These are some very quotable quotes, it's all the more impressive he was sharing this stuff with no intention of it ever being made public or repeated.

Some Collected Writings of C.S.Lewis - On Writing

2 months ago
Close inspection of his writings both public and private will reveal a man with an integrated way of thinking and writing from top to bottom.