During his lifetime, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) received thousands of letters from young fans who had read the Chronicles of Narnia and wanted to connect with the author. One such fan was an American girl named Joan Lancaster, who wrote to Lewis in June of 1956. We don’t know exactly what Joan wrote in her letter, but Lewis’s reply is one of the many letters preserved in his book Letters to Children (63–65). (As a side note, if you begin reading this little book you probably won’t put it down until you reach the last page. Lewis’s graciousness and creativity in these letters is quite refreshing. For a university professor, he treated children rather well.)
In his reply to his young admirer, Lewis talked about the nature of language and writing. He said that in his view “good English” was basically “whatever educated people talk,” and that this would necessarily vary depending on region and time. More significantly, he offered her five suggestions about how to become a better writer. Reading these, I realized that most of us could benefit from the advice. Here are Lewis’s suggestions with a little commentary added:
- Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
In other words, be clear. If what you write could be misunderstood, it probably will be. When writing a term paper, article, or book review, try to have someone read what you’ve written aloud to you. Does it sound right? Did the reader stumble over certain sentences because he or she couldn’t tell where the emphasis belonged?
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
A helpful book in this regard is William Brohaugh’s Write Tight. If you have a tendency to blow past page limits when writing, you need to read this book. Long words don’t necessarily make a writer sound intelligent, in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. Regardless, you should be writing to communicate something, not to prop up your self-image, and good communication is usually direct and appropriately concise.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
Sometimes abstract nouns are needed, especially in academic papers. But when they are not, using them just adds another layer between the writer’s mind and that of the reader.
- 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.”
In grammar school you were likely taught to use lots of adjectives in order to make your writing more interesting. You were taught wrong. Whether you are writing fiction or prose, don’t pile on the adjectives. Instead, use strong nouns and verbs to communicate what you mean.
- 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.
More generally, don’t misuse words. Lewis uses the example of “infinitely.” The word I see (and hear) misused the most is “literally.” E.g., People say that they “literally died of laughing.” Unless you’ve figured out a way to communicate from the grave, you shouldn’t use this phrase. Make sure you are using the right word in the right place. Check a dictionary or usage guide if you’re not sure. The best long-term solution to the problem of misusing words is to read a lot of good literature. Good writers can help their readers become better writers.
A lot more could be said, but a wordy post about good writing would be rather ironic. If you are interested in improving your writing, a great little book to check out is Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life. In about 120 pages, Wilson provides more advice about how to write well than most of us will ever be able to implement—though it wouldn’t hurt to try.