Friday, September 29, 2006

Rules for Writing, No. 1

I thought these comments over at the Reformation21 blog were right on the mark (both about writing and about John Milbank's wretched prose):

As we anticipate Michael Horton's contribution to Radical Orthodoxy, Paul Helm makes the passing comment as to the "execrable English prose" of some of the protagonists in the radical Orthodoxy debate. We've all read books like this, of course, where linguistic intimidation has been the argument of choice!

Contrast this with C. S. Lewis advice to a teenager:
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 clean 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 things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “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.

Letter from June 26, 1956, quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1989), 623.

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