5 Tips for Clear Writing and Talking

On April 8, 2008 John Piper posted a quote by C.S. Lewis. Piper wrote that “C. S. Lewis’ advice to children on writing is good advice to pastors on preaching, or anybody on talking.” Here’s the Lewis quote (this is not a blanket-endorsement of Lewis or Piper):

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 clean 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 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.”

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.

(Originally published in Letters to Children, letter from June 26, 1956. Quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root in The Quotable Lewis, p. 623.)

UPDATE: I overlooked the implications of Lewis’ comments about adjectives. Marc commenting on Lewis’ point #4:

“This opens the door wide open for using way too much detail. When we talk about horrifying or disgusting things, we should say they are horrifying or disgusting without going into the gory details. This is not doing the job for the reader or the listener. This is modesty of speech” (Marc D. Carpenter).

Here’s C.S. Lewis’ point #4:

4. 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.”

Let’s say we want to convey the disgustingly horrifying nature of adultery or fornication. How should this be done? We are NOT to describe it with such filthy and minute detail that we end up endorsing that which we are trying to condemn. So if I want someone to be positively delighted with my description of the Munchkin cat, I may go into way too much detail. But mewing Munchkins are not matters of modesty.

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