C. S. Lewis on Writing and Writers

Helpful quotes on writing from Lewis:

A little while ago I wrote an article on Lewis discussing books and reading. Because I, and many of you, are great fans of Lewis, and also great fans of books and reading, it made good sense to offer such a piece, replete with a number of terrific quotations from Lewis. You can see that article here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/02/19/c-s-lewis-on-books-and-reading/

I mentioned there a book called The Reading Life edited by David Downing and Michael Mauldin (William Collins, 2020). It was a great supplement to the quotes I had already assembled. In the preface to that volume the editors began with these words:

The noted critic William Empson once described C. S. Lewis as “the best-read man of his generation, who read everything and remembered everything he read.” Moreover, “at the age of ten, Lewis started reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. By age eleven, he began his lifelong habit of seasoning his letters with quotations from the Bible and Shakespeare. In his mid-teens, Lewis was reading classic and contemporary works in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian.


And Lewis did indeed seem to remember most of what he read. One of his students recalled that someone could quote any line from the book-length Paradise Lost, and Lewis would continue the passage from memory. Another student said that he could take a book off Lewis’s shelf, open a page at random and begin reading, and Lewis could summarize the rest of the page, often word for word. With that kind of memory, Lewis had little difficulty reaching for just the right quotation or reference to illustrate his point. Since it seems he was able to carry an entire library in his head, it should come as no surprise that his major scholarly books average about one thousand citations apiece. His three volumes of letters contain another twelve thousand quotations or references. Even The Chronicles of Narnia for children contain nearly one hundred echoes or allusions to myth, history, or literature.

When I posted part of that on the social media a while ago, I followed it up with these words: “That in good measure is why I – and most of you – will never be another Lewis!” Before moving on to some of his quotes on writing, let me piggyback on what was just said about his more academic and scholarly works.

While most Lewis fans of course know all about his more popular work – everything from his Narnia series, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and so on, many of these academic works are much less well-known. For dedicated lovers of Lewis, Cambridge University Press has a series of these books out in paperback at affordable prices, all released around 2013. They include:

The Allegory of Love
The Discarded Image
An Experiment in Criticism
Image and Imagination
Selected Literary Essays
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature
Studies in Words


Here then are just some of his quotes on writing and writers. Some are rather familiar, while some are not. I sought to provide the source for each one as well. As in my previous piece, in this article I again make use of quotes that I had long been collecting of his.

But it is worth pointing out that there is companion volume to the book I mentioned above. It is On Writing (and Writers): A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions, edited by David Downing (HarperOne, 2022). Like the previous volume, it has mined deeply from the Lewis corpus for things he said about this topic. First, let me present the opening paragraph from his Preface:

“C. S. Lewis published nearly forty books in his lifetime, most of which are still in print. Apart from his Narnia Chronicles, which have sold over one hundred million copies, Lewis distinguished himself in many genres—science fiction, literary criticism, theology, memoir, and poetry. So when Lewis took time to comment on the art of writing, his observations are well worth considering.”

Image of On Writing (and Writers): A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions
On Writing (and Writers): A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions by Lewis, C. S. (Author) Amazon logo

And here are some of his observations:

“Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” Out of the Silent Planet

“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad . . . .” Introduction to Studies in Words

“The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.” “Cross-Examination,” in God in the Dock

“I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves; for these, writing is a necessary mode of their development. If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 28 August, 1930

“Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 30 May, 1916

“It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 20 June, 1916

“I have read nothing lately, except a foolish modern novel which I read at one sitting – or rather one lying on the sofa -this afternoon in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. I think, that if modern novels are to be read at all, they should be taken like this, at one gulp, and then thrown away – preferably into the fire.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 28 June, 1916

“What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 14 June, 1916

“I only once detected a pupil offering me someone else as his own work. I told him I was not a detective nor even a schoolmaster, nor a nurse, and that I absolutely refused to take any precaution against this puerile trick: that I’d as soon think it my business to see that he washed behind his ears or wiped his bottom. He went down of his own accord the next week and I never saw him again. I think you ought to make a general announcement of that sort . . . . What staggers me is how any man can prefer the galley-slave labor of transcription to the freeman’s work of attempting an essay on his own.” Letter to Alastair Fowler, 10 December, 1959

“It follows that there are now two very different sorts of ‘writers for children’. The wrong sort believe that children are ‘a distinct race’. They carefully ‘make up’ the tastes of these odd creatures—like an anthropologist observing the habits of a savage tribe—or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the ‘distinct race’. They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in. The right sort work from the common, universally human, ground they share with the children, and indeed with countless adults.” “On Juvenile States,” in Of Other Worlds

“I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer’s duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven’t. We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn’t write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story. When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it, it was first and foremost a good wheel. Don’t try to ‘bring in’ specifically Christian bits: if God wants you to serve him in that way (He may not: there are different vocations) you will find it coming in of its own accord. If not, well a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, just like cooking a good nourishing meal. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)” Letter to Cynthia Donnelly, 14 August 1954

On Jane Austen: “Her books have only two faults and both are damnable. They are too few and too short.” Letter to R. W. Chapman, 6 September 1949

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2 Replies to “C. S. Lewis on Writing and Writers”

  1. Thank you for collating these quotes. Reading them was a pleasure.

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