I love reading CS Lewis books and letters. Everything from The Screwtape Letters to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Surprised by Joy to The Pilgrim’s Regress to Mere Christianity simply captivates me. In perhaps my favorite of his writings, The Great Divorce, Lewis describes an afterlife that makes my current life make so much more sense.
All of us need to write to communicate our ideas. Whether it’s a few lines in an email or a letter trying to convince a Code Official of a favorable interpretation, we all need to keep learning to write better. With that in mind, I’m sharing a letter CS Lewis wrote to a young fan of his in 1956. He got thousands of fan letters and tried to write a thoughtful, hand written response to each one. Here’s his response from the wonderful C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children.
26 June 1956
Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. 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 thingitself — 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.
About amn’t I, aren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!
What really matters is:–
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.
Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you’ll like your new home.