IN C.S. LEWIS’ LAST INTERVIEW, he was asked what he would tell a young writer about developing a style. His response was worthy of the last public words of the man who gave the world the simple yet profound Mere Christianity and the magical Chronicles of Narnia.
Lewis’ formula was this:
Know exactly what you want to say.
Be sure you say exactly that.
The man known to those closest to him simply as Jack went on to expand on that by saying:
The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.
Seven years earlier, in the summer before I was born, Lewis penned a now famous reply to an American school girl seeking advice on writing. That advice along with other snippets of wisdom appeared in Letters to Children in 1956. Would that every adult wanting to communicate with other adults heed this advice:
- 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 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.”
- In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “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.”
- 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.
In the six years or so since becoming a freelance writer I have written everything from an in-depth consideration of the Genesis account of creation to articles on how to create Search Engine Optimized content for the web to news articles about things made my blood boil. Oh, and did I mention I also completed and sent off to an editor my first novel to self-publish?
Along the way in this writing journey and life as a whole Lewis’ formula has proven invaluable. Most breakdowns in communication come from two sources:
- Not knowing what I really want to say.
- Even when I do know what I want to say failing to say exactly that.
One of the values in writing stuff down is being able to look at the stuff coming out of my mouth a little more objectively. Did someone claiming to be a writer just use a word as weak as “stuff” to describe his words? Sure, I could have chosen something far more eloquent to attempt to convince you of my literary prowess. But to do so would have been about as genuine as most of what you hear coming out of Washington and sadly, too many pulpits.
If you aren’t taking time to think though what you are saying to others, the odds are what they are hearing is just stuff. Can you think of a time when you got yourself in a bind with a person you cared about because you spoke before really having anything to say? How about knowing you didn’t know what you wanted to say but plunging on ahead and saying something anyway?
Tell me … how did that work out for you?