Does Sincerity Result in Good Writing?

October 7, 2019 — 9 Comments

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.

9 responses to Does Sincerity Result in Good Writing?

  1. 

    Hi Rob,

    Quality is so important. It’s part of our witness that we don’t put out junk for Jesus.

    In Christ,

    Gary

    On Mon, Oct 7, 2019 at 2:16 PM Mere Inkling Press wrote:

    > robstroud posted: ” Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, > does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other > words, does honesty correlate to quality? C.S. Lewis addressed this > question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Buny” >

  2. 

    Know what, I must read this again. And again. Each word is thick with heritage and need. I’ve just woken up from a chilly indian night, the family pigeon has laid her egg in a pottedplant, my husband’s acting like her father in law. (That pigeon was born in our lil garden, and mothered by our second daughter. Need take picture before she returns). All that and I stumble on your fabulous site, Bunyan and Lewis; sigh but happily. Gods on His throne, no matter what’s in my earth. We’re coping with health issues, our youngest, but theres Healing Rain falling in thru it all. I’ve never stopped to think of good writing. I should. Christ would like some order. Maybe I’m short on time, maybe I’m too absorbed in the beauty around ashes. God’s stunning. He surprised me again this morning, forgive my rambling on but how does one stay coherent in the presence of His tender grace Grace new every morning. It’s not just about leaves and birds. Its your words here. Resonating Him. The Lord reward you for putting a site together like this. A haven for Christian wannabe writers. Youre blest.

    • 

      Thank you so very much for sharing with me that you’ve been blessed by Mere Inkling. And thank you for your words of blessing! (I always welcome blessings and prayer, even when the latter is offered to God by folks who are unhappy with me.)

      There’s much to be said for free flow writing, especially when it includes so many delightful details as you include. I’m not “labeling” it in a limiting way, but sharing how it strikes me (especially when there are no paragraph breaks). Your thoughts flow sensibly from one observation to the next, and they are all enveloped in the glow of a healthy awareness that the Lord is present with you.

      I love reading about your family pigeon. The bonding of humans and animals (and different species of animals with others, for that matter) are like a foretaste of heaven. And, I don’t consider it a drawback in life to be “absorbed in beauty around the ashes.” As for healing, I’ll add my prayers to yours as soon as I post this comment.

      • 

        Thank you for that kind reply! I’d written in a rush but thankyou for your patience. Will get back here soon’s I can.

      • 

        Thank you for prayers, it means everything that total strangers could pray for one another, in an age of suspicion and chaos.
        My gratitude.

        Yes, I read my long paragraph :) and your kind appraisal. It takes all kinds of everything on the world of words. I do reel off, esp when inspired. I guess my blog posts read that way too. Readers have been kind, and I absolutely love the generosity of blog world, where people from any-which-where come together for for few headlines. It is mind boggling when a connection is made, but when there’s Prayer, ah that.

        Our 18 yr old is getting better by millimeters, but put those together and there’s a yard! He’s with post-seizure aggression. I’m repeating myself? Tough, cuz he’s blind. Yet, the girls(2), Jeff my husband and I have learnt much about the Light of God in our years here. Gratitude fills my heart this season, as we wrap up for 2020.
        I’m curious about your life and what you think of the way this decade has gone. What are your impressions of modern Christian writing?

        My wishes for the very best that God Himself would grant you as His son and faithful Prayer-er, Scribe. The Lord reward your talking to Him on behalf of this lil blogger. ‘Thank you’ is such 2 little words, but it is sincere. Mere Christianity, ahm, It’s way more. It’s the best Gift Humanity can give each other.

        ‘God bless you plenty much,’ as my son Johann would say.

        RN.

      • 

        Good to learn more so we can better pray for Johann. My wife taught special ed, so we’ve interacted often through the years with precious special needs friends. I was unfamiliar with the situation you described with post-seizure aggression, so I researched it after reading your comment. After Delores returned home, we discussed Johann’s condition and she shared she had a student with a similar disorder. Delores suggested the family explore alternative medications (from their doctor, of course) and they actually came up with an alternative which controlled the seizures equally well, and actually eliminated the aggressive behaviors (“he remained his true, loving teddy-bear self after his seizures”).

        It may be that your doctors have explored this avenue already. But if they haven’t, press the issue. A very quick internet search revealed my wife’s experience was not just anecdotal. Check out this article, for example: “Epilepsy, Antiepileptic Drugs, and Aggression: An Evidence-Based Review.” The entire article is available at no cost at http://pharmrev.aspetjournals.org/content/68/3/563
        As for my life, we’ve been spared life’s hardest challenges. Two miscarriages were tragic, but three healthy kids are more than we deserve. Eleven grandchildren, who bring us mostly joy. I’ve shared a lot about myself in various posts here, so over time you’ll likely get to know more about me than you care to.

        I’m not a fair critic of modern Christian writing. I really only read non-fiction and historical works. I do read a lot, but it’s mostly related to research and keeping up with contemporary Christian news and theology.

        Have a blessed Christmas, and may God bless you and your family plenty much!

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  1. Does Sincerity Result in Good Writing? — Mere Inkling Press – Kelly Griffiths - October 8, 2019

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