Writing lessons from the masters

04.05.2012

in Tools & Techniques

Good writing comes mostly from reading what good writers have written. But quite a few good writers, like C.S. Lewis, John Steinbeck, and George Orwell, have also taken the time to write tips – practical suggestions – for good writing.

The key to good writing – in short – is clear thinking followed by clear, concise writing. Here are some tips from a few of the world’s great writers about how to do that.

C.S. Lewis was one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century. He is best known for the Chronicles of Narnia, but he also wrote a large number of philosophical and religious works, such as his popular Mere Christianity. Here’s what he said about writing:

  • 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 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. 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.”
  • 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.

David Ogilvy, a writer and advertising executive, has been called “The Father of Advertising.” He tells writers to:

  • Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  • Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
  • Never send a letter or a memo (or anything else) on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

John Steinbeck was an American writer. He is best known for his novel Grapes of Wrath.

  • Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.
  • Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place … it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader.

George Orwell was an English novelist and journalist who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. His advice is similar to Lewis’s:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print (In other words, be yourself).
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, alway cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

If you want to learn more about writing, read Learning to write and Better Writing, two collections of short articles I wrote last year.

Warren Ediger

References: C.S. Lewis on Writing, 10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy, Steinbeck’s Tips for Aspiring Writers, and Writing Tips by … George Orwell.

José Henrique Silveira April 7, 2012

Good article Mr. Ediger. I really admire the style of writing used in English, in Portuguese the style is too labored and is common to use as difficult words, as difficult as you can. I guess people think they are more intelligent doing it. In Portuguese, people really like to garnish the texts, but it is slow changing in the modern times where you don’t have much time for writing or even for reading.
Best regards,

J. Henrique

Sergio Fabbri April 8, 2012

Dear Warren,

Exactly one year ago – when I was 55 – I started studying English more seriously than in the past because I had to take my daughter to London… So I thought. Anyway, my daughter came back after one month and half and, despite that, I’m studying English yet! Why? There are many reasons, I guess, but I use to say it’s a sort of… rebirth! It looks like I need a new language, a new tongue.
I’ve not much time for studying, however I try every day to read something in English (nowadays “Teach Us to Sit Still” by Tim Parks or “The End of The Affair” by Graham Greene) or listen to the BBC radio; after dinner my daughter and I watch English tv series like “Downton Abbey”, last “Sherlock” or “Life on Mars”… How much do I get about what I read/listen to/watch? Perhaps average 30% or less…

In my view, my feeling in “studying” (just a bit of grammar to be honest) in this way is really similar to that of a child who’s growing up amid odd adults – and the adults are talking and talking and talking in that strange language, sometimes you understand and sometimes not… And about writing – when it… happens! – I try to write in one go, without translating my more “mature” (almost I hope they’re so…) thoughts.

I don’t know why, but it’s a very good… sensation! My best wishes and thank you very much for your very precious tips.

Sergio

P.S. I’m telling myself: who knows what I’ve just written… But I’m confident of your kindness.

Warren Ediger April 8, 2012

Sergio – Congratulations on your efforts to acquire English! You’re doing the right thing: a lot of reading and listening. I’d make one suggestion: do as much easy listening as possible; you’ll pick up English faster if you do. Try the ESL Podcast – http://www.eslpod.com. It’s the best source I know for good, understandable English.

By the way, good writing! Easy to understand.

Warren

Andreu Martínez April 10, 2012

Hello Sergio,

I totally agree with Warren and besides I can tell you that this podcast is a very good one to start with. I started with this podcast years ago and it worked. In my opinion is one of the best resources to learn English for beginners, intermediate and even upper-intermediate students that you can find.

The subjects are very interesting and with the right long (about 15-20 minutes). English Café gives you a vision of American life and a lot of English as well.

By the way Sergio, your writing English is good, clear and concise. I understand it very well.

Bye,

Andreu Martínez April 10, 2012

Hello José,

This that you mention happens with Spanish or Catalan also. I dare to say that probably this happens in all languages. It is not a language question, is a person question. I think Portuguese, Spanish, French, German are rich languages with a lot of vocabulary. It is a question how you use this vocabulary and how clear you have in your mind the ideas that you want to write before writing them.

I think that English and above all American-English culture is a culture that goes straight to the point and this is shown when the people speak or write.

Bye,

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: