To a Schoolgirl in America: Writing Advice from C. S. Lewis

By

I was browsing my copy of Letters of C. S. Lewis (a British first edition, of course!)  and happened upon this little gem. Those of us who write would do well to heed this advice—especially the part about not listening to the radio, for which we should substitute Netflix, Facebook, and bingeing on podcasts. It’s not that those things are necessarily bad, but if you’re going to indulge in them you forfeit your right to ever complain about not having time to finish your book. I’m preaching to myself here, of course.

I also had a hard time with number seven, because computers.

On with the list!

TO A SCHOOLGIRL IN AMERICA, who had written (at her teacher’s suggestion) to request advice on writing.

14 December, 1959

It is very hard to give any general advice about writing. Here’s my attempt.

  1. Turn off the Radio.
  2. Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
  3. Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
  4. Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about. . . .)
  5. Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he wants to know—the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.
  6. When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.
  7. Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.
  8. Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.
Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


12 Comments

  1. Profile photo of J. Philip Horne

    J. Philip Horne

    @jphiliphorne

    Very good, though I think number 7 is sketchy, or doesn’t really apply with computers, or something. My guess is Lewis’s long-standing practices of writing had wired his brain such that point #3 was hindered by the sound of what was likely a loud typewriter. I find typing helps establish a rhythm rather than hindering it. An author I’ve collaborated with posted a video of her typing on Instagram that exemplifies this connection between our typing and the story. https://www.instagram.com/p/BUvpltFB-ZI/

  2. Profile photo of Matt Garner

    Matt Garner

    @mattgarner

    And what a writer he was. Good advice! It reminds me of a talk I heard from Pulitzer Prize-Winning playwright Tracy Letts on being creative. He had several points that I think Lewis would have agreed and some he definitely wouldn’t. The most poignant and possible points of agreement were: take time to don’t do anything so you have time to daydream, stop listening to NPR, stop drinking because drunks have nothing to say, and read fiction. The full list is here, but I’m reluctant to describe in detail because he uses some strong language some of it only really makes sense if you have a secular worldview, which Letts does.

  3. Profile photo of J. Philip Horne

    J. Philip Horne

    @jphiliphorne

    Very good, though I think number 7 is sketchy, or doesn’t really apply with computers, or something. My guess is Lewis’s long-standing practices of writing had wired his brain such that point #3 was hindered by the sound of what was likely a loud typewriter. I find typing helps establish a rhythm rather than hindering it.

  4. Jonathan Rogers

    Excellent. However, I often give (almost) the opposite advice to #3…my little saying is “eye before ear.” Which is to say, first make sure the reader can envision what you’re trying to depict, and then think about how the sentence sounds.

  5. Profile photo of Gypsy Martin

    Gypsy Martin

    @gypsy

    That’s interesting, Jonathan. I wasn’t sure what he meant by the “eye” part of writing “with the ear, not the eye.” I didn’t associate “writing with the eye” with making sure the reader can envision what the writer is trying to depict, but rather with clarity and proper grammar. I took the rule to mean that we can write “correctly,” but if it doesn’t also sound good, it’s not good writing. Which, fortunately, does not conflict with your advice. 🙂

  6. Profile photo of Matt Garner

    Matt Garner

    @mattgarner

    I sort of took it to mean activating the mind’s ear inasmuch as we can hear the words and phrases in our heads, their rhythms, alliterative pleasures, shapes, and tones in the same way that the words and phrases evoke a visual tapestry via the mind’s eye. Some writers prefer one over the other but I think the delicate balance may be worth shooting for.

  7. Profile photo of Laure Hittle

    Laure Hittle

    @mrs-hittle

    Given #5 i don’t think he’s saying in #3 that the cadence and mouthfeel of words are less important than the reader being able to envision what’s happening.

    This is a really good list.

  8. Dan Rechlin

    Re: #7: Don’t computers have their own version of inherent “noise” potential? (i.e. distractions from a writer’s flow)  I’m not even talking about the kind that comes from media (social or not).  Sometimes I feel like the minor technical issues these machines come up with can derail any rhythm I might have had.  Does anyone have any creative/interesting preventative measures they use for this kind of problem?

  9. Jody Collins

    Number 4 resonated, “…If you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer because you will have nothing to write about.” Lewis’ wisdom stands the test of time.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *