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C.S. Lewis’s last interview was on May 7, 1963--six months before he died. One of Sherwood Wirt’s questions was on writing: “How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?”

Lewis responded:

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 reader will most certainly go into it.

(“Cross-Examination,” in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley, p. 555.)

Seven years earlier (June 26, 1956), Lewis responded to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

  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 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.

(C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, p. 64.)

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13 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’s Advice on Writing Well”

  1. Andrew Moody says:

    Thanks for this, my daughter is an avid writer, and this will be very useful for her. We have great need of more gifted writers!

  2. This advice from Lewis is like having a quick wrap-up of all the most important points from the classic “On Writing Well,” by Zinsser. I just finished it, and I am already receiving positive feedback from readers.

  3. David Dorr says:

    Great post! I love the quote, “Please will you do my job for me?”

  4. First off, God bless you and yours for your blog and time.

    This is a very insightful post. My favorite advice is “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”

    I think we can all learn from this wisdom on writing.

  5. matt says:

    Valuable stuff!

  6. Eliza Huie says:

    Thanks for your attention to this topic. I have enjoyed and been helped by the posts on writing…this one and the discussion you posted a couple weeks ago. I hope you continue this theme.

  7. Dan Phillips says:

    Dang, that’s good.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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