Do you have any favorite authors whose work you rave about to anyone who will listen?
You’ve read all of their books and may have even tried to imitate their style. Wouldn’t you love it if you could converse with them and get their feedback on how you could improve your writing?
In 1956, C. S. Lewis did just that for a young fan.
The British author of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series received countless letters from children all around the world. He was careful to respond to each one. A collection of some of these responses can be found in the slim volume Letters to Children.
Among them are several of his letters to Joan, a young girl who wrote to him from the United States. She sent her first letter to Lewis in 1954. They would end up exchanging over twenty letters.
In one letter, Lewis outlined for Joan his five rules for writing well. Though the letter is now sixty years old, Lewis’s rules are still relevant for writers today.
Read on to discover C. S. Lewis’s five rules and how we can use them to improve our own writing.
C. S. Lewis’s 5 Writing Rules
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 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’s Rules in a Nutshell
All five of these rules share a common underlying principle: when you are writing, your first and foremost concern should be for your reader.
We do not write solely for ourselves but to share our writing with the world.
With that in mind, when you edit your writing, you should try to imagine yourself as your reader.
You, of course, know what was in your head when you wrote those lines, but how will someone interpret them who doesn’t know you?
Are your sentences clear and simple? Are any confusing? Could any have double meanings? Are you using so many long and obscure words that your writing sounds pretentious? Is it too difficult to read?
Lewis warns us not to weigh down our sentences with too many adjectives: show, don’t tell. Let your passion come through. Make your readers feel as if they are seeing with your eyes.
Write in a way that they can see the colors, taste the foods, feel the atmosphere of a room they have never stepped foot in before, and smell the rich and varied scents of the new worlds and experiences you share with them.
C. S. Lewis on What it Means to Be a Writer
Of course, that is all easier said than done. And Lewis understood this.
At the beginning of his letter to Joan, he critiqued a piece of her writing and observed,
You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.
Essentially, Lewis is telling Joan that writing is not a craft we can master in a matter of hours or days. It takes years and years and perhaps can never be mastered at all.
But we can become better writers. We can improve day by day if we are willing to keep on practicing and putting in the hard work.
Writing is not something to be rushed through. It requires careful thought and reflection. It requires us to transpose the muddle of our thoughts onto paper and rearrange those thoughts in such a way that they can inspire our readers.
It can be a frustrating business. But, in the end, it is all worthwhile because we have the power to make the world a better place through our writing.
As C. S. Lewis is said to have once observed, “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
Not all of us are lucky enough to have the opportunity Joan did to pick the brains of a favorite author. If you’re like me, many of your favorite authors might be long dead, in which case you’d have to find a way to time travel like Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris.
And, of course, there’s always the possibility that a favorite author wouldn’t feel up to critiquing your work. In C. S. Lewis’s fascinating essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, he made clear that he did not like giving advice on writing.
“I would rather learn about the art than set up to teach it,” he wrote.
After all, there is always more we can learn, always more time to spend practicing. As Ernest Hemingway once wryly observed, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
So let’s learn from the great authors who went before us, carefully studying their writing and always looking for ways that we can improve our own so that one day we can create something truly beautiful, something that will truly touch the hearts of our readers.
What do you think of C. S. Lewis’s five rules? Is there any rule you would add? If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and share with someone you would like to inspire.
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My mother went to university when I was in grammar school. One of the great payoffs for me was her Anthology of Children’s Literature. It was a mammoth, double-columned tome of poetry, folklore, myth, and short stories. I loved it, and spent hours laying on my bed, chin in hands, flipping through its pages.
Alas, growing up, the book was lost. But much of my adult life haunting used bookstores and yard sales has been looking for this book. I didn’t even know its name, but each anthology I came across I quickly left behind. After fifteen years of looking, I got desperate and went to my mother’s alma mater and asked the English secretary if they had a certain syllabus from the early 1980s. She looking strangely at me and I backed slowly out of the office.
One time I pulled an anthology off a friend’s shelf. It wasn’t the right one, but I quickly found within it an essay by C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” I was stunned at his brilliant and humorous advice, and how very quotable he was. I’ll save some of my favourites for the end of this blog, but this is what caught my eye when it fell on that accidental page:
“[When I write for children] I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties” (22).
It really is a great essay, widely available online, and found it Lewis’ essay compilations Of Other Worlds and On Stories.
Recently I had the chance to talk with William O’Flaherty of EssentialCSLewis.com on his Essay Chat feature. It is a great opportunity to explore one of C.S. Lewis’ most famous essays. It was also an opportunity to catch up on the essay that not only informs my writing for children, but drew me into studying Lewis in the first place.
You can find the interview here. I would love your comments!
By sheer chance, a few months ago, I finally found the lost Anthology. A digital friend was giving away some books, and this was one of them. It turned out to be the Riverside Anthology of Children’s Literature, and it is available used or as a free ePUB online. My son can now flip through this incredible resource, as I have done.
On the search for that book, though, I found this great essay. Here are some more great quotes:
- “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story”
- “Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us”
- “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing”
- On arachnophobia: “I don’t know anything my parents could have done or left undone which would have saved me from the pincers, mandibles, and eyes of those many-legged abominations”
- “everything in the story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind”
- “The matter of our story should be a part of the habitual furniture of our minds”
- “The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man”
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About Brenton Dickieson“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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