C.S. Lewis on What Makes for Good Writing
These eight tips still work today.
In C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing by Corey Latta, Lewis writes a letter to a girl inquiring about what makes for good writing. Lewis gives eight tips that still hold the test of the time for the modern writer:
1. Turn off the radio.
Okay, maybe we listen to the radio less than previous generations. But how about social, TV, podcasts, Netflix, and You Tube? I’d say Lewis is spot on. Distraction is the enemy of good writing.
2. Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
What’s a magazine?
3. Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being real aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
When polishing and editing your work read it aloud. If you can, print it off, read aloud, and mark with a red pen. I know authors who listen to their books read to them via software on their computer. You’ll catch all kinds of funky stuff.
4. Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about.)
Can I get an Amen?
The passionate writer is a prolific writer. Lewis wrote fantasy and Sci-Fi novels for adults and children. He also wrote Christian theology and popular Christian books for a broad audience.
Lewis wrote what he wanted to write despite almost getting crucified by the Oxford literary elite. We do our best writing with great passion and heart because of a love for the subject at hand.
Write books about dragons eating a village, or how to sew a sweater. Do what interests you and you’ll find an audience. There are more people who like your interests than you’d think.
5. Take pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead them to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know- the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.
Too many newbie writers try to be cute and clever with their language. Clarity wins the game. Tell the reader what you want them to know, see, or experience. We can attribute the timeliness of Lewis’ work to his clarity of speech.
Do your readers know what you’re trying to say?
6. When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years later.
My hard drive is a manuscript graveyard. But many of these false starts have led to some of my best work. And sometimes, your creative brain is telling you, not right now… later.
I heard a great story about Stephen King shelving The Dome because the story was too big. Years later, he picked it up and finished the mammoth novel.
Don’t give up too soon, but sometimes that project needs time to marinate in your mind.
7. Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.
If Lewis had a Mac Book Pro, and a delete button, he might’ve sung a different tune. He would have been even more prolific with a computer, but who knows?
Maybe read #1, get rid of those distractions. And try writing by hand, many do.
8. Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.
Thanks Wikipedia and the internet. Not as big a deal any longer. But please make sure you know the difference between prostrate and prostate. Very different meanings…
Lewis has solid advice here. Which ones resonate with you?
Now go put them into action. Get those words on the page…
(Source: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing, pages 192–193)
Ryan J. Pelton is a teacher and genre-nomad author with over seventeen fiction and nonfiction titles to date. He also hosts a popular writing and publishing podcast, The Prolific Writer. Ryan reads, writes, naps, and nurses a Diet Coke addiction, with his wife and four children in Kansas City, Missouri. Buy a book and send his kid’s to college.