A ‘very important’ writing tip from C.S. Lewis

I just came across a real gem of a letter on Letters of Note (a blog that’s definitely worth a look), sent by C.S. Lewis to a young American fan in 1956.

Isn’t it lovely and quite remarkable that he replied to his fan mail in such a thoughtful and personal way?

Aside from that, though, this letter stood out to me because of a particular piece of advice shared in it, which I think all e-learning designers (indeed, all writers!) should be mindful of:

In writing. 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.”

How often do we make the mistake of telling our learners that something is ‘very important’ – especially in compliance courses? Are we guilty of laziness when we do this? Is it easier to just tell our learners that doing (or not doing) something is important and expect them to believe us, rather than illustrate consequences and impacts in such a way that they can infer the importance themselves?

Incidentally, the other four pieces of writing advice included in C.S. Lewis’ letter are equally valuable and worth bearing in mind – go and take a look.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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8 thoughts on “A ‘very important’ writing tip from C.S. Lewis

  1. Jo

    That’s a really good point that had never occurred to me before – of course now it’ll annoy me every time I read one of those adjectives!

    Reply
  2. scottbergman

    Interesting writing tip. I had never thought about describing details like that. I’ll have to play with this a little bit and see if it improves my writing.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Scott – I think this is the kind of thing most people have never thought of but, when you come across it, seems so obvious! Good luck trying it out in your own writing.

      Reply
  3. DStev

    I was an English Education major for my undergraduate degree. I then did, in fact, teach English to High Schoolers for about 2 years. That was in a previous life, it seems, I could go on and on (and on some more) about how great this letter is. Instead, I’ll simply say that in my current life in instructional design, I saw a graduate student post on Facebook a question about salaries for instructional designers. One response froma LEarning Technology Senior Manager was,

    “One side note, it is CRITICAL that ISDs and Learning Technologists know how to write!!! I have hired and subsequently fired way too many ISDs with MS degrees who cannot write. This is somewhat of a paradox in that I would have presumed this ability be a prerequisite to completing any MS degree program.”

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Daniel, thanks for your comment. I agree that instructional designers should be able to write well – technically well and with some creativity. But then, I would say that, having entered the industry as a result of looking for a writing-based career. I’m glad you enjoyed the letter – I’m actually re-reading the Narnia books at the moment, and enjoying them all the more for having just had that insight into C.S. Lewis’ approach to writing.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: E-Learning Pfeffer Nr. 2 | whriesenbeck

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