Saying less to say more.

In C.S. Lewis’s last interview, he was asked the question: “How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?”

Here’s how Lewis responded:

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 C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley, p. 555)

I’ve heard this advice before.

I’ve heard it from co-workers.  Whenever I ask for feedback on my communication abilities they point out my tendency to just talk without purpose or direction.

I’ve heard it from myself.  When we train up new teachers at our church, we drill this point home.  We tell them that for the good of the student they have to fight the desire to just talk.  They have to be willing to cut any content that isn’t absolutely necessary to convey their point and read their objective.

I’ve heard it from the Bible:

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.(Proverbs 29:20)

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.(Proverbs 10:19)

Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.(Proverbs 13:3)

If I want what I say to mean more, I have to say less,

I know I am someone who is quick to speak.  I know I am someone who has a thought on almost any topic you put in front of me.

I want to change.  Those who speak every time they have a thought actually sabotage their student’s ability to learn.

Educational psychology tells us that if you teach someone ten things – they walk away remembering one.  If you teach them three things, they walk away grasping all three things.  The less you say, the more they learn.

People grow when I limit myself to necessary words only.

I know this. I teach this. I read this in the Word.  So, why is it still so hard for me?  Why am I so addicted to sharing every thought in my head or every illustration I come up with?

At the end of the day, I am unwilling to limit my words because my teaching, my writing and my speaking is more about me than the listener.  I am more concerned with saying what I want to say, than I am concerned about the development and growth of my students.

If I prioritized the student above the teacher, I would edit my words to help them grow and develop.  I would be willing to cut anything if that’s what would help those around me learn.

Sigh.

P.S. Here are five more writing tips from my boy Clive:

  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 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. 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 reallyinfinite.

(C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, p. 64.)

7 thoughts on “Saying less to say more.

  1. ohhh convicted! this whole year i’ve been learning about my “ENFP” personality type and the most brutal part has been my over-talking. I’m not a writer by any means but i’d like to be respected as a leader and teacher and student. thanks to you & the wonderful clive!

  2. This was a most insightful article. So many us, myself included, are caught up daily in the ongoing struggle to limit our words as we communicate with others. Calmness, serenity and knowledge are the gifts that spring from talking less, speaking low and listening more.

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