Writing Rules from C.S. Lewis

I visited my brother in Ann Arbor over the weekend. He’s in college, so we did lots of college stuff, like play beer pong (he is stellar, I am awful), eat gross cafeteria food (creamy chicken enchiladas?) and use folded cereal boxes to take brownies out of the oven (oven mitts, what?)

C.S. Lewis

We also reviewed his application to one of Michigan’s competitive undergrad programs. It is always infinitely easier to edit someone else’s essays than to write your own and I quickly filled his pages with red ink. Not literal red ink, mind you, as this is not the 1950s.

Unfortunately for my brother, I didn’t read this fantastic writing advice until after he had submitted his application. It’s a letter from C.S. Lewis to a young reader, and comes to us via the lovely blog Letters of Note:

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 keepthem.

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.

I am guilty of breaking so many of these rules. In fact, pretty sure I committed at least three fouls in the first few paragraphs of this post. If you did a word cloud of this blog, I think that the three most commonly (read: overly) used words would be “infinitely,” “basically,” and “awkward.”

Related Post: The first letter I loved from Letters of Note.

Related Post: Best/worst letters of the day.

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1 Comment

Filed under Art, Books, Family

One response to “Writing Rules from C.S. Lewis

  1. aviatrixkim

    Orwell’s rules are similarly great.

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