Archives For Writing Advice

C.S. Lewis on Brevity

February 17, 2021 — 18 Comments

Regular readers of Mere Inkling are accustomed to posts that require a bit of thinking.* This one will be different.

I opted for a simpler topic, wedged as this post will be, between two more thought-provoking subjects. Avoiding verbosity is a worthwhile goal. Admittedly, it’s harder for some of us to reach, than for others who are innately succinct.

I will simply say, to promote clear communication it is necessary to (1) strip away all extraneous words, and (2) ensure that we know what the words we use mean to our hearers or readers. (This is especially true when “preaching.”)

In terms of the meanings of words, C.S. Lewis describes the value of commonly shared or “learned” language. If a word, say “baptism,” or even something simpler, such as “tree,” meant the same thing to all—communication could be much more concise.

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity (“Before We can Communicate”).

[Such learned language] can say in ten words what popular [common] speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original.” Alas, because we lack that united vocabulary, this we must just put up with.”

Still, Lewis would argue: let’s please keep the unnecessary extraneous explanation to a bare minimum. (It would be an easy task to whittle that sentence down, wouldn’t it? Let’s try.)

C.S. Lewis says using the fewest necessary words is (usually) best.

[If you would like to read a slightly more developed essay on this subject,
search no farther than “Brevity & Clear Communication,” which was published in 2017.]


* I was tempted to write “a bit of cognitive interaction,” but realized I’d be undermining my purpose for this simple post in my very first sentence!

Each writer brings a unique balance of talents to the task before them. Some excel at the initial writings. Others are especially talented at sharpening their work after the first draft has been created.

Understanding where we fit on that spectrum of author or editor, can be very empowering. Knowing our strengths and non-strengths is a major step in becoming a better writer.

Andy Le Peau worked for four decades at InterVarsity Press. His excellent blog, Andy Unedited, explores “books, life, and writing.” Five years ago he penned a short post that I still find extremely enlightening.

In “Authors are Like Pioneers—Editors Are Like Settlers,” Le Peau uses that unusual analogy to explain a creative tension at play in the lives of most writers I know. And, once we understand this fluid dichotomy, I believe it makes us better writers.

Authors tend to come up with new ideas and push them forward. They like to move into literary territories not explored before. Creating something new is like a shot of caffeine to their systems.

Good editors see how to improve a book, make it read better, clearer. They don’t try to shape the book in their own image. Rather they see the good that is already there and find ways to make it even more effective, better organized, clearer.

Good writers are usually pretty decent editors. Not expert, but adequate enough to recognize ways in which their own work can be improved. That’s why we call the “first draft” a first draft.

Now, if you consider your initial draft a finished product, you are definitely not a settler!

C.S. Lewis was a gifted writer. He also knew a great deal about editing, as I’ve discussed here in the past. I’ve even described his astonishment with the practices of some editors.

Lewis was quite open to revising his own work, even after it was published. In 1959, he wrote to one of his publishers, “Yes, there is one chapter of Miracles that needs revision. The result of the revision will, I think, make it shorter rather than longer. I’ll get onto this job as soon as I can.”

My Perspective on the Writing Process

While I embrace the pioneer or settler symbolism, I expand the analogy by thinking about my own writing process. I tend to think of it in three categories, with

Researching – Writing – Editing

To this process, if we desire to actually share our work, should be added at its end, “Submitting/Publishing.” Submitting refers to presenting it for potential publication in various media. By publishing, I refer to skipping the proverbial middle person, and posting your work online or using one of the self-publishing options readily available today.

In my personal context, I regard researching as a semi-independent stage of the writing process.

This may be due to the fact I focus on nonfiction. (Fiction writers can devote meager attention to it, and get away with it—not that they should ever ignore it.)

There are two additional reasons researching earns its own place in my writing process. First, because it is in my innate nature to be thorough and accurate. Second, I simply love the process. I know I’m in the minority.

Most writers prefer to get on with the task as soon as possible. I, however, am enslaved by my inherent curiosity to learn as much as possible about the undertaking as I can, before embarking on the actual writing. (And, yes, I recognize this may be exaggerated by my mortal tendency to procrastinate.)

To maintain the original analogy, in the spirit of Leif Erikson, I think of it this way:

Explorer – Pioneer – Settler

This works well for me, and I hope this post offers some insight and encouragement to you, as well.

Some people become parents and others do not. This column isn’t about the complex considerations that determine which path each individual follow. We all know people in each situation who are happy—as well as those who are dissatisfied.

I want to consider here a single reason some people choose not to have children. There are, of course, many valid reasons for not bringing children into this world, but this one struck me as particularly odd.   

Before we look at the interview question, allow me to offer a thesis that I believe most writers would agree with. Not all would concur, but don’t you think there would be strong consensus with this statement:

Raising children makes being a productive writer more challenging.

It’s pretty logical that the time spent actively parenting children leaves an author with less time to pursue their writing. Especially if they are a good mother or father.

Sure, kids provide us with some great stories and inspiration that can occasionally be worked into an article or story. But unless we’re a Dave Barry, an Erma Bombeck or a Bil Keane, people won’t line up to read about our children’s hijinks. So, if you were to balance the scales, I think we’d be hard-pressed to make the case that the addition of children to our household will make our writing more prolific.

In a recent interview with Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes, the editor of World Magazine raised this subject in an unusual way. Here is the question: “I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist?”

Shales’ response was thoughtful. “Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness . . .”

It will come as no surprise that I agree with Shales’ opinion (with the substitution of “wife” in the first sentence). But the idea that struck me as rather shocking in this interchange was the reason the economist gave for opting not to have children: “because he felt each child would lose him a book.”

Wow. That is a pretty honest, and rather crass calculation. I won’t argue with his domestic equation, but it makes me shake my head. I can’t help but wonder how he will feel at the end of his life when he looks at his bookshelf of soon-to-be-forgotten titles and contemplates whether his choice was wise.

Lewis’ Personal Experience

C.S. Lewis was one of the most prolific writers. And he wrote in an expansive range of genres. It could easily be argued that his bachelorhood provided him with the time to write. That, in addition to the creative fountain provided by the Inklings made for a productive environment.

When he became a father, he was extremely conscientious. The boys were sent to private (or, in British parlance, “public”) schools after their mother’s death. However, that was the norm for children in their comfortable economic circumstances.

Lewis loved his sons, and did the best he could to be a father to them, despite his lack of confidence. Lewis was still the man who many years earlier (in 1935) wrote to his closest friend: “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” A decade later, in one of his most powerful books, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself” (The Abolition of Man).

Self-awareness is a mark of intelligence and honesty. I strongly believe Lewis put the lie to his self-criticism about lacking a rapport with children, with his wonderful letters written to children.*

It could be argued that parenthood was one of the factors that affected Lewis’ literary production. Brenton Dickieson has a chart showing his annual production of books, here. Another scholar, Joel Heck, has done the world a great service by providing the definitive chronology of C.S. Lewis’ life and work, available here.

Lewis did not marry earlier in his life because he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. Joy’s unexpected arrival transformed his life.

But, even before he became a (step-)father, he would never have uttered the sentiment of the Harvard professor.

A book or a child? Which shall it be? If that is a difficult question for someone, here’s my advice: “Please just write your books; you’d probably make a lousy parent anyway.”


* C.S. Lewis was able to speak clearly to children. And, unlike so many adults, he did not speak down to them. While toddlers may have remained a mystery to him—and he never parented any—he respected children’s questions, and offered wise advice.

On putting one’s life in its proper order: “You are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up, is all nonsense.”

And, how is this for a thoughtful, practical comment: “All schools, both here [in England] and in America, ought to teach far fewer subjects and teach them far better.”

Wise counsel to a young person (or anyone): God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.”

And, one particularly inspiring comment about faith: “Anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

No one can teach us to “write like C.S. Lewis.” The great author was definitely one of a kind.

It is possible, however, to study Lewis’ advice about writing. And that is a journey well worth taking.

Many students of C.S. Lewis are quite curious about his advice for writing well. And, for the proverbial “limited time,” the premier study of that subject is available at an unbelievable price.

The kindle version of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing is only three dollars at amazon. (Great subtitle, right?)

Coincidentally, I only recently purchased the volume for my Logos library (at a significantly higher cost). I’ve yet to read it, but it appears to be worth what I paid. Still, I don’t want any readers of Mere Inkling to miss out on this opportunity to get such a bargain.

Wipf and Stock, the publishers, regularly place a few titles from their excellent list on sale. The current offering features another book I previously purchased at full price, The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew. (I mention that, confident there is at least one other trekkie out there reading this.)

Writing about Writing

Many people who follow blogs such as Mere Inkling are bloggers themselves. It’s rare to find a writer who doesn’t also like to read. And because of the complementarity of reading and writing, books about writing always find an audience.

In my “works in progress” (research) files, I have a handful of projects related to writing. One of them is—digital drumroll—C.S. Lewis on Writing.

That’s the main reason I haven’t begun reading the book I’m recommending. While I assume our approaches to the topic will be different enough to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism, I’m reluctant to open the door to unsought influences.

I have never plagiarized, and never will. In fact, I tend to overattribute thoughts. So, eventually I will read the work, since I’m forearmed with my integrity, and I understand that, as a well-known science fiction writer once reminded me . . .

Ideas cannot be copyrighted—only the particular expressions of ideas are protected by copyright.

As the writer of “5 Things that Can’t be Copyrighted” says:

Ideas can not [sic] be copyrighted because they are not fixed into a tangible medium of expression. For a work to be copyrighted, it has to be written down, saved to a hard drive or somehow otherwise fixed.

For example, if you give a speech but fail to write it down first and it isn’t recorded, there is no copyright protection. . . . it is the expression of the idea that is protected. My “5 Things That Can’t Be Copyrighted” post is fixed, but you can certainly write your own post with the same title and idea. However, you can not use my exact words, unless, of course, you follow my CC [Creative Commons] license.

Those of you who are American can learn more about protections covered in the United States at this site. They dispel some of the myths associated with copyrights, such as whether something must be (1) “published” or (2) registered to be protected. (The answer to both is “no.”)

Someday you may have an opportunity to read C.S. Lewis on Writing by yours truly. In the meantime, don’t miss the opportunity to add C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing to your personal library.

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.

csl & newman.png

Those who despise C.S. Lewis seek to eradicate his influence in the Christian Church. They care not that Lewis remains one of the most effective Christian apologists the world has ever seen. Only the Lord knows how many people (literally) have been encouraged in the faith by Lewis’ ministry.

When examining Lewis’ theology, it is necessary to keep in mind several facts. First, he often reminded his readers that he was not a theologian, simply a faithful layman. Second, he formally espoused and practice the orthodox Trinitarian faith as professed by the Anglican communion. Third, Lewis consciously sought to introduce timeless truths to his readers via reason and, more effectively, through fiction and imagination. (The Great Divorce offers a fascinating yet fully fictional exploration of how purgatory might work.)

Thus, Lewis critics will always be able to gather fuel for the foot of his stake. A primary example of this comes in Lewis’ emotive receptivity to the doctrine of purgatory. It is taught only by the Roman Catholic Church, although individuals from other denominations may also be sympathetic to it.

For example, Protestant philosopher Jerry L. Walls includes a chapter in his recent book on purgatory entitled, “C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer of the twentieth century, believed in purgatory. This is significant because his influence in Protestant and evangelical circles is perhaps especially strong.

This chapter shows not only that Lewis believed in purgatory, but also that it is integral to his theology of salvation. It explores how he understood the doctrine by examining his comments on Roman Catholic theologians John Fisher, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman. While he was quite critical of Fisher and More, he saw in Newman the recovery of the true substance and spirit of the doctrine.

It is fair for us to acknowledge that Lewis’ understanding of justification was imperfect. Salvation comes through faith (Romans 5:1), not through penitential or purgatorial efforts. But let’s read about his position in his own words. The following comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which is, itself, a collection of thoughts “shared” with a fictional friend.

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. . . .

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream.* There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?

Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”

“It may hurt, you know”

“Even so, sir.”

This is where I acknowledge Lewis’ view on justification to be deficient. Of course we would wish to be fully washed and clean before standing in our Creator’s presence. And that is precisely how we enter into his presence. Clothed not in our own filthiness and rags—but in the radiant righteousness of our Savior.

As the Apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)

Lewis’ greatest contribution to the Christian Church is found in his skilled apologetics based on the core essence of our faith. Lewis communicated the divine hope that is within us in his lectures, speeches and broadcasts. But it was through the written word that his inspiring words have touched the greatest number of people.

On the Subject of Writing

It is possible that Lewis was familiar with the following advice from Newman about effective writing. Certainly, he agreed with a number of the cardinal’s literary precepts. The following passage relates specifically to writing sermons, but it possesses far broader application. It comes from The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman’s own feeling as to the most effective way of imparting truth by writing is conveyed in the following notes, dated 1868, on the writing of sermons:

A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.

He should never aim at being eloquent.

He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.

He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.

He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Reading this helpful advice from Cardinal Newman reminds us we can learn valuable lessons from people with differing theology. And that truth should be quite encouraging, since none of us possess perfect doctrine.


* The full title of the work to which Lewis refers here is The Dream of Gerontius. (You can read it here.)

 

Free C.S. Lewis Book

October 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

bookshelvesC.S. Lewis has encouraged innumerable prominent individuals in their own faith and writing journeys. I know of no others who offer at no cost a book about his influence.

John Piper is a pleasant exception to that. In a moment I’ll provide the link where you can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C.S. Lewis.

The volume includes a number of extended excerpts from Piper’s fifty-plus books . . . passages where Lewis’ imprint is particularly vivid. For example:

The synthesis of mind and heart was embodied in C.S. Lewis. Lewis became for me in my college days what Jonathan Edwards became in my seminary days. He was a “romantic rationalist”—that was the name of a small book about Lewis that got me very excited because it summed up what I thought I was (which may be very akin to “pastor-scholar”). Lewis has had a tremendous influence on me in several ways.

Lewis embodied the fact that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive terms: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and to compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and to hug a friend, to demand a definition and to use a metaphor.

The author is chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. It was founded by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where Piper served as pastor for several decades.

The writer’s desiringGod website actually offers free PDF copies of many of his books and articles, even though most remain in print and available for regular purchase.

As delightful as Alive to Wonder is, most students of Lewis will find the materials from the 2013 desiringGod National Conference even more welcome. This year’s theme was “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.”

Piper’s website includes ten keynote presentations plus an informative panel discussion, all of which are available for download in audio files. Best of all, the lineup of speakers is first-class, featuring a number of familiar names.

And, since we’re on the subject of “free books,” allow me to share another interesting website.

Forgotten Books offers approximately a million volumes, to which “subscribers” have unlimited access. What sets them apart from other “public domain aggregates,” is that they (unlike books.google.com) provide a searchable text, in a variety of epub formats.

For those who are not interested in purchasing a subscription, they offer a Free Book of the Day option in which you receive the link to one of their texts which is good for twenty-four hours.

I recently used it to add Pure English: A Treatise on Words and Phrases, or Practical Lessons in the Use of Language to my kindle library. I find the reading of dated literary books to be:

Entertaining

Educational

and, occasionally, even

Inspiring

Here are a few sample passages from Pure English. The first sounds remarkably contemporary:

The abuse to which the English language is so generally subjected must be a source of sincere regret to all who appreciate its beauties. Ours is an age of progress and civilization, and it ought to be remembered that language, is also progressive.

In a section entitled “Objectionable and Obsolete Words” we read:

Banister is a common barbarism. The proper word is baluster, or balustrade.

— Noted. In the future I will alternate between baluster and balustrade.

“Disremember,” often employed in the sense of do not remember, although given in Webster, is condemned by the critics as a low vulgarism.

— Apparently so vulgar as to have fallen out of usage completely.

Hence, authoress and poetess are superfluous. So, also, are such words as conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, etc., all of which have recently come into current use. Perhaps the next edition of our dictionaries will, if the custom continues, be enriched by the addition of such words as writeress, officeress, carpenteress, manageress, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, etc.

— How did “waitress” survive, especially in the wake of such witty sarcasm?

It is questionable taste to call a coffin a casket. The pleasing name applicable to a case for jewels does not lessen the dread of death and burial.

— I hadn’t known before the sentiment behind the adoption of the word “casket,” since it’s become so thoroughly associated with this usage that was apparently at one time novel.

If you are interested in the books I’ve mentioned above, you You can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder here, and you can sign up for the free book of the day here.

Orwellian Advice

April 8, 2013 — 11 Comments

cls orwellThe title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

1. Always try to use 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. 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 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.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

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If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here.

cliche bookAvoiding clichés in one’s writing is such oft-repeated advice it’s nearly become a cliché itself.

Many do not make much sense to people approaching a language from a literal perspective. For example, those new to American English may require a bit of explanation to understand that “hit the books” refers to studying rather than literary pugilism.

Some clichés are easily deciphered, especially when read in context. As an admonition to stop obstructing a view, we can understand why someone would say, “You make a better door than a window.”

“Don’t rain on my parade” adequately warns the hearer to avoid dampening the speaker’s special plans or activities.

Folksy adages are common where clichés are concerned. Take “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We all know it references a child who shares numerous traits with a parent.

And we have interchangeable versions of the same notion, in case a lazy writer wishes to alternate your redundancies. He/she is a “chip off the old block” means essentially the same thing. And there’s always the classic “like father, like son,” and its corollary “like mother, like daughter.”

“As snug as a bug in a rug” used to be a favorite of my mother, ever applicable as she tucked little ones into their beds. Today, however, with bedbugs plaguing humanity in epidemic proportions, that cuddly image may have lost a touch of its appeal.

Some clichés have clearly outlived any usefulness they may once have possessed. “Too many chiefs, and not enough Indians,” clearly refers to a situation in which everyone is in charge and there no one is able or willing to actually carry out the project. However, few writers would tempt incurring the wrath of readers by using such a dated and rather prejudiced saying.

A cliché, of course, is a typically trite phrase that has lost its element of ingenuity due to overuse. It is something serious writers strive to avoid at all costs. But the final phrase in my previous sentence reveals how difficult it can be to purge these worn out words from our writing. Whenever used, they should be included consciously; writers might utilize them to establish, for example, a comic tone.

Even the gifted C.S. Lewis recognized the threat of clichés worming their way into one’s work. In a 1922 entry in his diary he wrote:

Tried to work at Dymer [his narrative poem] and covered some paper: but I am very dispirited about my work at present—especially as I find it impossible to invent a new opening for the Wild Hunt. The old one is full of clichés and will never do. I have learned too much on the idea of being able to write poetry and if this is a frost I shall be rather stranded . . .

The word cliché itself originated in France, where it was a printing plate or stereotype cast from an original composed of movable type. (The casting freed the movable type for new projects while maintaining the lettering for possible future printings.) The word came to be applied to ready-made phrases. However, the casting of printing plates is one thing. Recycling exhausted phrases ad nauseum is quite another.

Clichés are generally limited to a particular country or culture. Some are restricted to given regions. When outsiders hear or read these phrases, they often make little sense.

Some gain international esteem. More than a century ago Lord Acton described a universal truth of politics that resonates across boundaries. We have all witnessed the truth that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but those wise words are not something we should typically parrot in our own writings.

Not knowing the original source of a cliché is common. It is rather tragic, though, when it comes to texts that should be familiar to writers. For example:

“All’s well that ends well” is one of Shakespeare’s best loved maxims. If most Americans were asked whether it came from the pen of the Bard or Benjamin Franklin, we might be sadly disappointed with the results.

“The writing is on the wall” infers the outcome is already determined. But too few recognize this as a reference to a miracle recorded in the Book of Daniel. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can read the story here.)

Some clichés that relate to the art of writing would include the following [with my modest illustrations attached]:

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

     Appearances may be misleading.

Someone who appears wonderful when you first meet them may be just like an ebook with a professionally designed cover that contains a poorly scanned reprint replete with typos.

“It’s nothing to write home about.”

     Something that’s boring and not worth retelling.

While the freedom of POD technology has created democracy within the publishing industry, it’s also led to millions of meandering “books” that should “never have seen the light of day.”

A person is “an open book.”

     Someone who readily reveals their personality through word and action.

The type of character skilled authors will wish to introduce in limited quantities, especially if they are writing mysteries.

“Throw the book at him.”

     Give him the maximum possible judicial punishment.

The well-deserved fate of best-selling authors who rest on their laurels and start “phoning in” their sequels.

We turn now to a non-literary but colorful example of an American colloquialism that has spread far from its origins in the swine-breeding communities where it undoubtedly originated. It’s one of my favorite clichés, and it just may have a few good uses left in it, so feel free to include it in your next column or book . . . and no need to cite me as your source:

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

     A task is impossible, given what you have to work with.

The echoing refrain of editors whose clients expect them to transform a few dusty lumps of coal into diamonds.

Possible Valid Uses for Clichés

While it’s safest for writers to avoid them altogether, there are a handful of occasions where they are not utterly inappropriate.

One suitable place for “chesnuts” like these to appear is in dialogue—especially when it’s written for a character a writer desires to portray as rather shallow-thinking.

It’s incorrect to suggest good writers never use clichés in conversation or composition. They do. The difference is that when they do include such tired phrases in their normally witty banter, they do it with a sense of irony.

C.S. Lewis, master of wordplay that he was, illustrated how we can creatively re-imagine or reword a cliché to reinvigorate it. Only the very best minds are up to this task. Yet, when it’s successfully accomplished, it can prove quite entertaining. The following comes from an informal conversation that was recorded before his retirement, preserved in the collection On Stories. Lewis refers in passing to an overly detailed passage in literature that nearly obscured the storyline.

The only trouble is that Golding writes so well. In one of his other novels, The Inheritors, the detail of every sensuous impression, the light on the leaves and so on, was so good that you couldn’t find out what was happening. I’d say it was almost too well done. All these little details you only notice in real life if you’ve got a high temperature. You couldn’t see the wood for the leaves.

Literary Words

April 9, 2012 — 13 Comments

I must confess that I like words. In fact, it’s not excessive to say that I delight in brilliantly witty “turns of phrase” and elegantly painted landscapes that allow me to clearly see what the author is painting with his or her words.

I’ve grown convinced that loving words is a handicap to becoming an excellent writer. Yes, scribblers like me can become adequate or even appreciated writers . . . but to stand in the highest ranks a writer must be willing to ruthlessly slash and slay excess words that impede their perfect vision.

Self-editing is a discipline. It’s something that can be learned and refined through practice. That it forever remains a bit painful for some of us is clear evidence we are overly attached to the words we have put to paper.

C.S. Lewis addressed this general subject in a 1932 letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves. While he was not a slave to the number of words required, he aimed for simplicity and clarity. Lewis wrote:

I think I see, from your criticisms, that you like a much more correct, classical, and elaborate manner than I. I aim chiefly at being idiomatic and racy, basing myself on Malory, Bunyan, and Morris, tho’ without archaisms: and would usually prefer to use ten words, provided they are honest native words and idiomatically ordered, than one “literary word.” To put the thing in a nutshell you want “The man of whom I told you,” and I want “The man I told you of.”

I smiled as I typed Lewis’ remark about “ten words.” He used that to illustrate his willingness to use excessive verbiage to communicate clearly. Brevity was, however, an admirable goal. And brevity is a virtue I’ve seldom been accused of possessing.

In the military, comrades and associates are frequently presenting plaques and remembrances to those who are “rotating” to new assignments. Having served in a dozen different “permanent” assignments, I have boxes full of such memorabilia.

Two of the few I display are genuinely precious. The first is an icon of Saint Athanasius, presented to me by the best “boss” I ever had, an Orthodox priest by the name of John Stefero. The reasons for the personal gift were theological and I accepted it with genuine appreciation and humility.

The second prized gift is a gracefully curved etched glass keepsake featuring the seal of the United States Air Force Chaplain School where I served for three wonderful years. The commandant was speechless as he presented the plaque to me, reading for the first time the inscription that my closest companions had composed for me.

He says in a book what others say in a sentence.

The commandant (later our Chief of Chaplains) was stunned. I was delighted. I led the gathering’s laughter and bellowed, “Yes, and it’s a book well worth reading!”

Jack Lewis may have chided me a bit for the underlying reason for the accolade, but I am confident he would have delighted in the affectionate friendship and esprit de corps with which it was presented.

So much for my shortcomings. For all other writers (including, perhaps, you?) . . . I would recommend following the master’s example, rather than my own.