C.S. Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963) was a novelist, poet, academic and essayist, and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. To most readers though, he is best known as the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia which he wrote between 1949 and 1954. This seven-part fantasy series endeared him to millions of readers around the world, and resulted in him receiving thousands of letters, particularly from young fans.
It is said that nearly every morning Lewis spent at least an hour reading the mail he received and crafting thoughtful and detailed replies. A selection of these replies are gathered together in the beautiful collection C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorset and Marjorie Lamp Mead and first published in 1985.
In one of these replies Lewis shared some very practical writing advice with an aspiring young American writer named Joan Lancaster.
Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v.[ery] well. That is, you describe the place & the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.
About amn’t I, aren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I w[oul]d have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was! What really matters is:–
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.
Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v.[ery] well. I hope you’ll like your new home.
C.S. Lewis continued to correspond with Joan Lancaster for many years, with over a dozen further letters appearing in Dorset and Mead’s collection. In a 1959 letter Lewis described an essay from Joan as a “promising bit of work; the sentences are clear and taut and don’t sprawl.” In 1962 Lewis wrote “The imagery of your poem – what one can picture – is goodish. But the metre is surely to much of a jig for so grave a subject.”
A letter from 1963 indicates that Joan had enrolled at the University of Toronto. C.S. Lewis’s final letter to Joan sadly reads:
Your letter is full of things that I’d like to reply to properly, but I’m not up to it. Last July I was thought to be dying. I am now an invalid, retired from all my job, and not allowed upstairs. My brother is away and I have to cope with all the mail. Forgive me,
Lewis died two months later. We haven’t been able to find any further information about Joan but we do hope she continued to enjoy writing. What a wonderful mentor she had in C.S. Lewis.