Plain and Direct is Better than Long and Vague: Tips for Writers from C.S. Lewis
From a post by David C. Downing, author of the recently published novel, Looking For The King: An Inklings Novel (Ignatius Press, 2010), relating advice from C.S. Lewis about writing: (HT: Ignatius Press blog).
Lewis was a diligent reader of writing samples submitted to him, both from close friends and from complete strangers. He offered general evaluative remarks, but also comments on specific lines and particular word choices. Sometimes he replied by offering a quick primer on the art of writing. To a little girl from Florida he offered these five principles:
“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.”
“Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t say implement promises, but keep them.”
Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean ‘more people died,’ don’t say ‘mortality rose.’
“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.” Under this heading, Lewis goes on to say that the writing should delight readers, not just label an event delightful; or it should make them feel terror, not just to learn that an event was terrifying. He says that emotional labeling is really just a way of asking readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’
“Don’t use words that are too big for the subject.” Lewis illustrates this point by saying if you use infinitely as an intensifier instead of the simple word very, you won’t have any word left when you need to describe something that is truly infinite. (CL, 3, 766).
Lewis recommended these same principles to many other correspondents. He frequently emphasized that one’s writing should be simple, clear, concrete, and jargon-free. He also reiterated that one should Show, not Tell, that writers should capture sensory impressions and evoke emotions instead of simply offering an emotional label for what the reader is supposed to feel.
Lewis also believed that one should always write for the ear as well as for the eye. He recommended that a piece of prose be read aloud, to make sure that its sounds reinforce its sense. In discussing Greek and Latin texts, he said it wasn’t enough to work out the literal meaning of the lines; the translator should also recognize the “sound and savor of the language” (CL 1, 422).
Most certainly, Lewis felt the same way about English prose. To his friend Arthur Greeves, for example, he defined style as “the art of expressing a given thought in the most beautiful words and rhythms of words.” To illustrate, he offered first this phrase: “When the constellations which appear at early morning joined in musical exercises and the angelic spirits loudly testified to their satisfaction.” Then he gave the actual phrase as it appears in the King James Bible: “When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:70).