Group Writing: Advice from C.S. Lewis

 

I’m that strange breed of engineer that likes words and likes writing. I relish the exercise of formulating a thought and laboring to fashion it in a manner that makes a concept accessible to others. I wrote poetry when I was young, Bible studies in my 20’s, and a wide variety of technical and policy documentation throughout my career. Some years ago, I even started blogging out of an innate need to write, for myself and anyone willing to suffer as my audience. Of course, practical considerations (e.g. life) have relegated this craft to my “I’ll get back to it someday” bin of unfulfilled wishes. But I digress.

Writing creatively and succinctly was never really a focus during my student years. While I believe I am suitably proficient in the use of language and vocabulary, I find that getting beyond words as commodity to words as art to be a difficult chasm to span in my compositions. Bridging the gap between formulations that are essentially disposable to those that weave vibrant tapestries of expression is no small feat, and frequently seems beyond my humble capabilities. Yet, I still have aspirations.  So, when I come across what I consider sound writing advice, I hold onto it for review. Such it is with a letter that C.S Lewis once wrote to a young fan, that includes some interesting suggestions for writers.

He writes:

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.

I admit to some mixed feelings on the above, and I recognize that I’m frequently guilty of some of what he suggests are errors. As for the first item, I have no issue. In fact, I could argue that I’m too obsessed with being understood. It is one thing to put together language and words in order to be clear. It is another thing to go on and on, restating the same argument, making a broad and detailed case for the sole purpose of not being misunderstood. Of course, you must then balance this against the requirement for brevity, the so-called economy of words. Not my strong suit, as you can undoubtedly tell. (You can tell, right? If not, I can go on and explain it further).

His second recommendation simply pains me. While his example is quite clear and apt (who “implements” promises, anyway?), I admit to the joy of an extended vocabulary. There are so many wonderful words that would fail to see the light of day if we limited ourselves to the lowest common denominator in our word choice. I suppose it depends in part upon the purpose and the audience of the written material.

With number three, I’m in full agreement. I remember school days in which I would try to assemble such constructions of abstraction, mostly in a silly attempt to impress my instructors with the use of “bigger words.” However, I believe there is a natural tension here, as teachers often encourage such constructions to encourage the use of a broader vocabulary. You know, the whole “use this word in a sentence” shtick.

The fourth is a matter of art as much a matter of construction. Some writers simply have that gift to make the reader emotionally connect to their material. In visual arts, including video, the artist can make creative use of color and music to create the desired mood or response in the audience. With the written word, I’m not so certain there is such a clear-cut, manipulative formula. It is all in how you tell the story, or whether it is a good story told well. Commodity vs. art. The utility vs. the music of the written word.

Finally, a lesson in the proper use of hyperbole. If you use language at the extreme, then all that is left is absurdity. (Clearly, a lesson lost on many politicians and pundits alike). The avoidance of unnecessary exaggeration is good advice, except when used as a tool to further the story or argument in a desirable way. But it is a tool that should be used sparingly – if you are telling a tale or using it to illustrate a point. Exaggeration or hyperbole presented as fact lowers the value of the writing, and of the writer.

In the end, the goal is to inform or to entertain, and sometimes both. But to do it well, both the message and the mechanics matter, a magical mix of the commodity and art of words to produce something of value, powerful in its own way. Hard to do, but awesome when accomplished.

No representation is made that the quality of this advice is of greater value than the quality of advice offered by any other offeror of advice. Um. Yeah.

There are 33 comments.

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  1. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I like #4, and your appraisal of #4. I was working on something that would have the word “astonishing” in it…and I think I am going to stick with that. It was astonishing to ME! I’m just reporting this. I don’t think I can cause the same reaction in a reader. A reader might however be piqued by my reporting that the original experience was repeated several times, each time astonishing me anew. That I never figured it out or got used to it says something about it…or about me. Perhaps that will be illustrative.

    • #1
  2. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Super advice.  Great post.

    And excellent timing, because it lets me tell my ten-year old granddaughter’s new favorite joke, which she calls an “engineer joke,” although the engineer is not the one exhibiting the unclarity of language here:

    So, an engineer is going out to do a bit of grocery shopping.   The loving spouse (see what I did there) says “please get a gallon of milk.  Oh, and if they have eggs, get a dozen.”

    The engineer proudly returns home carrying a dozen gallons of milk.

    “What on earth have you done?”  the spouse exclaimed.

    The engineer shrugged.  “They had eggs.”

    Wish I could include video of her laughing herself into hiccups over this.

    • #2
  3. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    John H. (View Comment):

    I like #4, and your appraisal of #4. I was working on something that would have the word “astonishing” in it…and I think I am going to stick with that. It was astonishing to ME! I’m just reporting this. I don’t think I can cause the same reaction in a reader. A reader might however be piqued by my reporting that the original experience was repeated several times, each time astonishing me anew. That I never figured it out or got used to it says something about it…or about me. Perhaps that will be illustrative.

    #4 is my favorite of the bunch, and of course the one that is really the pinnacle of what I would ever hope to accomplish in my writing efforts.  And as for your dilemma with “astonishment”, I don’t see it as a violation of #4, per se, if your aim is to illustrate how said event affected you rather than trying to get the reader to have an identical reaction to the event itself.  Just my opinion, of course.  It just goes to show that even advice like Lewis shares in #4 has limits, exceptions, and conditions.

    • #3
  4. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    She (View Comment):

    Super advice. Great post.

    And excellent timing, because it lets me tell my ten-year old granddaughter’s new favorite joke, which she calls an “engineer joke,” although the engineer is not the one exhibiting the unclarity of language here:

    So, an engineer is going out to do a bit of grocery shopping. The loving spouse (see what I did there) says “please get a gallon of milk. Oh, and if they have eggs, get a dozen.”

    The engineer proudly returns home carrying a dozen gallons of milk.

    “What on earth have you done?” the spouse exclaimed?

    The engineer shrugged. “They had eggs.”

    Wish I could include video of her laughing herself into hiccups over this.

     

    Thanks, @she.  Yes, we engineers can be a literal bunch.  But a few of us have common sense (I think).  But that re-telling, and the visual image of a child laughing herself into hiccups is just delightful. 

    • #4
  5. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    She (View Comment):

    Super advice. Great post.

    And excellent timing, because it lets me tell my ten-year old granddaughter’s new favorite joke, which she calls an “engineer joke,” although the engineer is not the one exhibiting the unclarity of language here:

    So, an engineer is going out to do a bit of grocery shopping. The loving spouse (see what I did there) says “please get a gallon of milk. Oh, and if they have eggs, get a dozen.”

    The engineer proudly returns home carrying a dozen gallons of milk.

    “What on earth have you done?” the spouse exclaimed?

    The engineer shrugged. “They had eggs.”

    Wish I could include video of her laughing herself into hiccups over this.

     

    This budding young engineer arrived on campus riding a brand-new bicycle.

    His engineer friend said, “Hey, where’d you get the bike?”

    The first engineer said, “I was walking to class, when this beautiful girl rode up, stopped, got off her bike, and spoke to me.”

    “Wow!” the friend said. “A girl actually talked to you.  What did she say?”

    “She took her clothes off, threw them on the ground, and said, ‘Take anything you want.’ So naturally, I took her bicycle.”

    “Good choice,” the friend said. “Her clothes probably wouldn’t fit you anyway.”

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jim Chase (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Super advice. Great post.

    And excellent timing, because it lets me tell my ten-year old granddaughter’s new favorite joke, which she calls an “engineer joke,” although the engineer is not the one exhibiting the unclarity of language here:

    So, an engineer is going out to do a bit of grocery shopping. The loving spouse (see what I did there) says “please get a gallon of milk. Oh, and if they have eggs, get a dozen.”

    The engineer proudly returns home carrying a dozen gallons of milk.

    “What on earth have you done?” the spouse exclaimed?

    The engineer shrugged. “They had eggs.”

    Wish I could include video of her laughing herself into hiccups over this.

     

    Thanks, @she. Yes, we engineers can be a literal bunch. But a few of us have common sense (I think). But that re-telling, and the visual image of a child laughing herself into hiccups is just delightful.

    It’s also a good example of #4. 

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I think I shall have to create a character who violates every one of these rules. Writing his dialogue will be great fun.


    This conversation is an entry in our ongoing and eternally grand Group Writing Series under May’s puissant theme of The Power of Words. We still have five magnificent opportunities to demonstrate erudition and fling forth tall tales of derring-do on behalf of words, words, words. If you have something to say about words, our schedule and sign-up sheet levitates just off the surface of the earth, your magic carpet to join the long line of writers. Won’t you sign up now?

    • #7
  8. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I think I shall have to create a character who violates every one of these rules. Writing his dialogue will be great fun.


    This conversation is an entry in our ongoing and eternally grand Group Writing Series under May’s puissant theme of The Power of Words. We still have five magnificent opportunities to demonstrate erudition and fling forth tall tales of derring-do on behalf of words, words, words. If you have something to say about words, our schedule and sign-up sheet levitates just off the surface of the earth, your magic carpet to join the long line of writers. Won’t you sign up now?

    Nice!

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I recently read The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, and what I liked best about Lewis’s writing was how calm it was.

    I thought a lot about what made his writing so different from that of modern authors. I wondered if the difference was that Lewis worked on paper manuscripts and modern authors work on word processors. Before computers, I think authors had to let some things go. It was easier to trust the reader to understand the author than it was for the author to produce a new page of copy.

    I also think he talked to his readers. He liked people, and he was having a conversation with them. Rather than editing his prose to death, he trusted his readers to be sensitive and intelligent people. He was talking with me, not at me.

    It was a joy to read these books this past winter. I don’t know how we bottle Lewis for other writers.

    I think the best writing of the next century will come out of places like Ricochet where people are writing to an audience they enjoy and love and understand and know well.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    A postscript to comment 9:

    Some of Lewis’s calm style came from his and others’ decision to be a counterweight to Hitler’s hysteria. Hitler upset the Brits partly because of their own deeply held convictions about chivalry. Hitler’s tirades went against everything the Brits believed about dealing with fear. For one thing, a good person doesn’t spread fear.

    Mere Christianity was mostly a collection of radio addresses that the BBC had asked him to give as a way of helping the Brits deal with the anxiety of the war. The Brits enjoyed listening to Lewis for the same reason I did. :-)

     

    • #10
  11. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Arahant (View Comment):
    I think I shall have to create a character who violates every one of these rules. Writing his dialogue will be great fun.

    I made a post a long while back, a short story based on violating the rule about not using clichés and trite expressions.  It was called “Clichéville—A Short Story” (not very original title, I know).  Maybe the Ricochet search engine will find it.  If not, I’ll find the link or even repost in the comments of this post.

    • #11
  12. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    MarciN (View Comment):
    I also think he talked to his readers. He liked people, and he was having a conversation with them. Rather than editing his prose to death, he trusted his readers to be sensitive and intelligent people. He was talking with me, not at me

    I think this assessment aligns well to the writing advice he offered to his young fan in that letter.  From his theological treatises to Narnia, his language is generally clear and unpretentious, and easy to understand.  He entertained, he taught, he “conversed” with his reader after a fashion.

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Stad (View Comment):
    I made a post a long while back, a short story based on violating the rule about not using clichés and trite expressions. It was called “Clichéville—A Short Story”

    http://ricochet.com/archives/clicheville-a-short-story/

    • #13
  14. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Jim Chase:

    It is another thing to go on and on, restating the same argument, making a broad and detailed case for the sole purpose of not being misunderstood. Of course, you must then balance this against the requirement for brevity, the so-called economy of words.

    It’s good advice from Lewis, and good commentary from you–in a good post!

    We also shouldn’t think too much of this advice.  I don’t blame G-d when people misunderstand the Bible, and Lewis is not at fault when people misread him.  The clearest writer in the world can be misunderstood by someone who eisegetes him, or by someone who understands the simple words and sentences but draws illogical inferences from them.

    There are so many wonderful words that would fail to see the light of day if we limited ourselves to the lowest common denominator in our word choice. I suppose it depends in part upon the purpose and the audience of the written material.

    Very good!

    I think academic writing especially needs Lewis’ advice here.  To the academic writer we can almost always say: Take that sentence you wrote for your academic peers using their language; now rewrite it using words your peers at church can understand.

    • #14
  15. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    A grad school prof (and a wonderful chap) told me it’s usually good to imitate the writing style of the philosopher I’m writing about.  I think the following idea of my own may have been an expansion of Dr. Evans’ advice:

    Ask yourself how C. S. Lewis would have made this point; now, quickly–write that down!

    When I was writing my dissertation on Augustine I also used this strategy to imitate Carol Harrison, one of the best writers on Augustine.  (The revised book version now only $10 on Kindle!)

    • #15
  16. Chuckles Thatcher
    Chuckles
    @Chuckles

    When I read rule 3 my first though was that Lewis must not have been paid by the word.  My second though was that some writers would be paupers if they paid that rule much heed.

    • #16
  17. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):
    I made a post a long while back, a short story based on violating the rule about not using clichés and trite expressions. It was called “Clichéville—A Short Story”

    http://ricochet.com/archives/clicheville-a-short-story/

    I always get more things done when others do the work.  Thanks!

    • #17
  18. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    That’s a great list and a great post and thread.  I am also an Engineer and got virtually no courses in writing (other than Fortran).  When I got to the real world, I was amazed at how much writing – proposals and reports – was required.  It doesn’t matter how good your design or plan is if you can’t convince others.  That is where the need for clarity comes in.

    The problem with most Engineering writing is that there is often a great deal of data to describe.  I have thought for a long time that the undergraduate Engineering curriculum should include a course in writing with an emphasis on the display of data using the books by Tufte such as “The Visual Display of Quantitative Data” or “Visual Explanations”.  If nothing else, an Engineer should read the chapter in “Visual Explanations” about the Challenger Shuttle disaster and how it could have been much more clearly predicted by a better display of the available data.  The Engineers  had the data and the ‘feelings’ about what would happen with a launch in cold weather but were unable to communicate their evidence in a convincing way to the upper levels of management.  A failure to communicate that cost many lives and probably billions of dollars.

    • #18
  19. barbara lydick Inactive
    barbara lydick
    @barbaralydick

    Jim Chase: It is one thing to put together language and words in order to be clear. It is another thing to go on and on, restating the same argument, making a broad and detailed case for the sole purpose of not being misunderstood.

    Terrific post.  I’ve filed it for future reference because it’s so good.

    As an aside, one comment on the above – ” for the sole purpose of not being misunderstood.”  I might change that to remove the word “not.”  “For the sole purpose of being misunderstood.”  This then would sum up much academic writings, e.g., feminists’ tracts – on most anything…  That way it can mean anything they want in order to deflect any criticism.

    Jim Chase: If you use language at the extreme, then all that is left is absurdity.

    Re above – Need I say more?

    • #19
  20. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim Chase: Bridging the gap between formulations that are essentially disposable to those that weave vibrant tapestries of expression is no small feat, and frequently seems beyond my humble capabilities.

    I think you’re there, Jim. Beautifully done.

    • #20
  21. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    That’s a great list and a great post and thread. I am also an Engineer and got virtually no courses in writing (other than Fortran). When I got to the real world, I was amazed at how much writing – proposals and reports – was required. It doesn’t matter how good your design or plan is if you can’t convince others.

    I agree wholeheartedly!  About 10 years ago, I was assigned an engineering co-op student who was working for us one semester.  In shaping the expectations for the work to be performed, I added periodic written reports, briefings, and an oral presentation – much to the initial panic of said student.  But the experience was valuable, and other than the slight overuse of Powerpoint animations throughout the presentation, the student did well.

    I routinely advise engineering students to seek out those classes which will require the development of communications skills (written and oral), beyond just their Technical Writing classes.  I firmly believe it is to their benefit.

    • #21
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim Chase (View Comment):
    I routinely advise engineering students to seek out those classes which will require the development of communications skills (written and oral), beyond just their Technical Writing classes. I firmly believe it is to their benefit.

    Jim, I am not only married to an engineer, but many years ago I developed a business writing course–and many of my clients were engineers! So I completely agree with you. And they appreciated the help!

    • #22
  23. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Jim Chase (View Comment):
    I routinely advise engineering students to seek out those classes which will require the development of communications skills (written and oral), beyond just their Technical Writing classes. I firmly believe it is to their benefit.

    Jim, I am not only married to an engineer, but many years ago I developed a business writing course–and many of my clients were engineers! So I completely agree with you. And they appreciated the help!

    Of course, there is a downside to having better-than-marginal writing skills as an engineer.  You end up getting drawn into far more proposal writing and documentation development than most engineers would ever care for.  Some cycles, I feel like I do more documentation than engineering.

    • #23
  24. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim Chase (View Comment):
    Of course, there is a downside to having better-than-marginal writing skills as an engineer. You end up getting drawn into far more proposal writing and documentation development than most engineers would ever care for. Some cycles, I feel like I do more documentation than engineering.

    Oh, yes, my husband said the same. He was/is a good writer, and sets high standards, too, so when anything passed his desk, the red ink flowed. I know when he edited my work, I finally considered it a challenge to edit and proofread my writing so well that he could find nothing to criticize. Of course we had some, um, passionate discussions about semi-colons!

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Of course we had some, um, passionate discussions about semi-colons!

    Kinky!

    • #25
  26. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    @jimchase :  other than the slight overuse of Powerpoint animations throughout the presentation, the student did well.

    Tufte also has a small book about the terrible impact Powerpoint has on presentations.  If you get a chance to see one of his in-person presentations, you shouldn’t miss it.  He has a hilarious send up of what the Gettysburg Address would be like if Lincoln used PowerPoint.

     

    • #26
  27. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

     

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Of course we had some, um, passionate discussions about semi-colons!

    Kinky!

    Arahant, don’t make fun.  Semi-colons turn me on.  My wife and I discuss them all the time in bed.

    Outside of a rare usage which I won’t get into here, I reserve semi-colons for one particular construction: to separate two closely related, balanced clauses.  The emphasis here is on the word “balanced.”  Here’s an example:

         All the brothers were valiant; all the sisters were virtuous.

    I grit my teeth when I see the semi-colon used for other constructions.  It’s certainly not a strong comma or a weak period. 

    Now wasn’t that sexy?

    Kent

    • #27
  28. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    Jim Chase:

    I’m that strange breed of engineer that likes words and likes writing.

    You are dead to me Jim ….. from a grammatically challenged engineer.

    His second recommendation simply pains me. While his example is quite clear and apt (who “implements” promises, anyway?), I admit to the joy of an extended vocabulary. There are so many wonderful words that would fail to see the light of day if we limited ourselves to the lowest common denominator in our word choice. I suppose it depends in part upon the purpose and the audience of the written material.

    Ok you regained a pulse….. same engineer from above with an classy lexicon.

    Of course, there is a downside to having better-than-marginal writing skills as an engineer. You end up getting drawn into far more proposal writing and documentation development than most engineers would ever care for. Some cycles, I feel like I do more documentation than engineering.

    LMAO …. The engineer on the other side of those proposals, reviewing them…..with a big fat red marker.

    • #28
  29. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    Just after I tried to get away with describing a trip to the beach last week as “lovely,” Mr. B. told me of your post and read me the five points of C.S. Lewis’ advice.  I was instantly convicted by #4.
    ” ‘Lovely?’ ” I thought.  “That’s just lazy.”

    Then the person I was chatting with online asked “how was the beach?” and in the spirit of #4 I said this:

    It was a great getaway. It was long hours of lying around reading (we forgot the DVDs which turned out to be nice), interspersed with invigorating walks on the beach, sometimes rainy, mostly not. Went out to breakfast, enjoyed being together without all the usual interruptions.

    Thank you for the reminder, Mr. Chase and Mr. Lewis.

    • #29
  30. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    GLDIII (View Comment):

    Jim Chase:

    I’m that strange breed of engineer that likes words and likes writing.

    You are dead to me Jim ….. from a grammatically challenged engineer.

    His second recommendation simply pains me. While his example is quite clear and apt (who “implements” promises, anyway?), I admit to the joy of an extended vocabulary. There are so many wonderful words that would fail to see the light of day if we limited ourselves to the lowest common denominator in our word choice. I suppose it depends in part upon the purpose and the audience of the written material.

    Ok you regained a pulse….. same engineer from above with an classy lexicon.

    Of course, there is a downside to having better-than-marginal writing skills as an engineer. You end up getting drawn into far more proposal writing and documentation development than most engineers would ever care for. Some cycles, I feel like I do more documentation than engineering.

    LMAO …. The engineer on the other side of those proposals, reviewing them…..with a big fat red marker.

    Oh yeah.  They love me on color team reviews.  I’m harsh and a red pen menace when it comes to meaningless fluff that has no true technical basis.

    • #30

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