Basic Writing Tips

British writer CS Lewis was an Oxford Don, Cambridge Professor, and best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction. He faithfully answered every letter sent to him, and many of his letters have been published. The following was a reply to a school-girl in America in 1959, who had asked for advice on writing.

Basic English Writing Tips from CS Lewis:

(simple advice from a great writer)
  • (A1) Turn off the radio.
  • (A2) Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
  • (A3) Always write with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write, as if it were being read aloud or spoken. If it doesn’t sound nice, try again.
  • (A4) Write about what really interests you–whether it’s real things or imaginary things–and nothing else.
  • (A5) Take great pains to be clear. Remember that although you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him/her to a total misunderstanding. In a story, it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something he wants to know. The whole picture is so clear in your own mind, that you forget that it isn’t the same in his mind.
  • (A6) 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 is my best, is re-writing of things begun and abandoned years ago.
  • (A7) Don’t use a typewriter; the noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of timing.
  • (A8) Be sure you know the meaning of every word you use.

(In another letter to a girl, Lewis added…)

What really matters is this:

  • (B1) 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.
  • (B2) Always prefer the plain direct words to long vague ones. Don’t implement promises, keep them.
  • (B3) Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean more people died, don’t say motility rose.
  • (B4) 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 that something was terrible, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was delightful, make us say delightful when we read the description. You see, all those words like horrifying, wonderful, hideous, and exquisite, are only like saying to your reader: “please do my job for me.”
  • (B5) 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.


My own comments:

  • I believe “turn off the radio” means to free yourself from distractions that are under your control. A radio broadcast is full of talking; I don’t know if Lewis would have said “don’t listen to music” (though I think that any music with words–even my favorite songs–is a distraction when I write).
  • Michael and Vivian next to the Lewis' typewriter, at his former home in Oxford (the machine belonged to his brother Warnie).

    Michael and Vivian next to the Lewis’ typewriter, at his former home in Oxford (the machine belonged to his brother Warnie).

    The only point I don’t agree with is #A7; I write much faster on a computer than I can write with a pen. But word-processors/computers didn’t exist in Lewis’ day, and his brother’s typewriter (the only one in his house) was a clunky, noisy thing!

  • Point #A6 highlights, in part, the importance of revision. The first draft of what you write is never as good as it can be. A student who simply writes an assignment and turns it in will never be a good writer. At least put it aside for a few hours and go over it again. If you allow someone else to read it and make comments before you revise it for your teacher, it will always be a better piece of writing.
  • I think #A8 is particularly important for English-learners, as is Lewis’ advice about “words” in section B. When my students use a computer or the internet to “translate” a word into English, they often use the English term incorrectly because they are not already familiar with the English word. As Mark Twain once wrote: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Similarly, my students use lots of flowery adjectives and abstract nouns, instead of describing things clearly.


  • My source for the first advise is a lecture by Earl Palmer called “CS Lewis, Part 1 – The Man”; you can download it or listen at Palmer credits this information to “The Letters of CS Lewis”  The second advice is from another lecture by Earl Palmer called “CS Lewis: friend of storytellers,” given at Regent College.

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