“The Sound and Savor” of Words: Lewis on the Art of Writing

I recently received a student essay explaining that “immigration, taxation, and economic exploitation have contributed to polarization across our nation.” Apart from its broad generalizing, the essay was clearly not written to be read aloud. Its rat-a-tat prose assaults the ear as if it were composed by an unlikely committee of bureaucrats and hip hop artists. I think if this student delves into the works of C.S. Lewis, it will not only stimulate his intellect and enrich his imagination; it will also improve his writing style.

C. S. Lewis published nearly forty books in his life-time, most of which are still in print. Apart from his Narnia Chronicles, which continue to sell millions of copies a year, Lewis distinguished himself in many genres—memoir, essays, poetry, allegory, literary criticism, philosophical analysis, fantasy, and historical fiction. So when Lewis took time to comment on the art of writing, his observations are well worth considering.

As he became increasingly renowned in his later years, Lewis was inundated with letters on just about every topic imaginable—from spiritual direction to Spinoza to spelling. He did his best to answer as many letters as he could, though this became an onerous task. Lewis explained to one correspondent that he had answered 35 letters that day; on a different occasion, he noted that he had spent 14 hours that day catching up on his correspondence (CL 2, 509; 3, 1152).

Lewis was a diligent reader of writing samples submitted to him, both from close friends and from complete strangers. He offered general evaluative remarks, but also comments on specific lines and particular word choices. Sometimes he replied by offering a quick primer on the art of writing. To a little girl from Florida he offered these five principles:

“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 say 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.’
“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.” Under this heading, Lewis goes on to say that the writing should delight readers, not just label an event delightful; or it should make them feel terror, not just to learn that an event was terrifying. He says that emotional labeling is really just a way of asking readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’

“Don’t use words that are too big for the subject.” Lewis illustrates this point by saying if you use infinitely as an intensifier instead of the simple word very, you won’t have any word left when you need to describe something that is truly infinite. (CL, 3, 766).

Lewis recommended these same principles to many other correspondents. He frequently emphasized that one’s writing should be simple, clear, concrete, and jargon-free. He also reiterated that one should Show, not Tell, that writers should capture sensory impressions and evoke emotions instead of simply offering an emotional label for what the reader is supposed to feel.

Lewis also believed that one should always write for the ear as well as for the eye. He recommended that a piece of prose be read aloud, to make sure that its sounds reinforce its sense. In discussing Greek and Latin texts, he said it wasn’t enough to work out the literal meaning of the lines; the translator should also recognize the “sound and savor of the language” (CL 1, 422).

Most certainly, Lewis felt the same way about English prose. To his friend Arthur Greeves, for example, he defined style as “the art of expressing a given thought in the most beautiful words and rhythms of words.” To illustrate, he offered first this phrase: “When the constellations which appear at early morning joined in musical exercises and the angelic spirits loudly testified to their satisfaction.” Then he gave the actual phrase as it appears in the King James Bible: “When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:70).

Lewis’s advice on writing is worth studying partly because he was so eminently successful in practicing what he preached. Lewis’s reputation shows no sign of diminishing nearly a half century after his death in 1963. His Narnia Chronicles continue as perennial best-sellers, and they have been hailed in The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature as “the most sustained achievement in fantasy for children by a 20th-century author.” Lewis’s books of popular theology continue to enjoy widespread influence and appeal. And, to this reader, turning to most contemporary critics after reading Lewis’s scholarly work is like (in his own phrase) “tinsel after diamonds.” (CL 2, 247).

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Downing has written four books on C. S. Lewis. He currently serves as a consulting editor for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Downing’s next book Looking For the King: An Inklings Novel will be published by Ignatius Press in October 2010. His college website may be found at http://users.etown.edu/d/downindc/)

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