The Power of the Poached Egg

I love writing. I the love the learning that goes before writing and the teaching that can happen through writing. Most authors love these two things too: learning and teaching.

I also love the craft of writing. This doesn’t make me a better person or even necessarily a better writer. But it makes me interested not just in communicating truth, but in communicating in a way that is winsome, clear, and memorable.

All of us appreciate good writing. We may not know that, and if we know that we probably don’t know why. But we all prefer to read something written well. There’s a way to communicate the truth and have it sound muddled. There’s a way to make it understandable. And then there’s a way to make it sing. That’s the difference between clear prose and great prose.

Let me give you an example from C.S. Lewis.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (56)

Almost every evangelical knows this paragraph. Many of us could just about recite it from memory. We all love the liar-lunatic-Lord trilemma. But what makes it so memorable?

[Incidentally, I’m setting aside the objection that there could be another “L”-legend. Lewis was writing for a British audience in the 1940s that didn’t doubt the authenticity of the gospel accounts by and large. Today’s apologetics might have to start by examining whether we can trust what the Bible says about Jesus in the first place. But that’s beyond the scope of this post. Let’s just look at Lewis’ paragraph as an example of solid apologetics (considering the context) and a wonderful piece of prose.]

For starters, the paragraph exhibits clear logic. The argument makes sense and is easy to understand. And yet, the logic is not pedantic. Imagine if Lewis wrote, “Jesus Christ can have one of three identities. One, he could be a lunatic. Two, he could be a liar. Or three, he could be Lord. Let’s look the evidence for each possibility.” Bo-ring. Notice, Lewis never uses the explicit syllogistic language of liar, lunatic, or Lord. That’s just how we remember it.

Moreover, Lewis has a good sense of rhythm. The first five sentences go long (37 words), short (9 words), long (22 words), long (28 words), short (5 words). The shorter sentence give the reader a chance to breathe. They are breaks from the rhetorical flourishes in the previous sentence(s). The short sentences stand out and pack a punch because of the paragraph’s cadence.

Lewis also writes with authority. He addresses the reader directly (“you can shut him up” is much more effective here than the stately “one can shut him up,” or worse, “one can silence him”). He firmly challenges the reader with the phrase “patronising nonsence.” And the last line (“He did not intend to”) is the perfect final note to the crescendo—clear, staccato, and resolves the chord (so to speak). Notice too, Lewis doesn’t care about ending the sentence (or the paragraph, or the chapter) with a preposition. How lame would “It was not intention to do so” sound?

Perhaps the greatest strength of this paragraph—and it’s what makes Lewis such a good writer in general—is the vocabulary. There is no jargon. There is no purple prose. Lewis is not trying to impress or hide his meaning from the uninitiated. He wants to be understood. And yet, the vocabulary is still fresh. He deals in specificity instead of ambiguity. Words like “lunatic,” “patronising,” “madman,” and “Devil of Hell” grab your attention. They are not difficult words or phrase, but they are interesting.

Best of all is the phrase “poached egg.” Lewis doesn’t need this line.  He could have left well enough with “lunatic.” But he went one step further and made lunacy laughable. Thinking of a man who thinks he is a poached egg is memorable. And funny too. People call it a “sense” of humor, and that’s what it is. You have to feel what fits. “Hamburger” seems too ordinary, whereas something like “bacteria flagellum” would have been too bizarre. Poached egg fits perfectly, though I think beluga whale could have done the trick too.

And finally, lest you think good writing is all about counting words in a sentence and inserting the right vocabulary in some master Mad Lib, let me hasten to add that memorable prose is never the product of axioms adhered to faithfully. Every good rule of writing can be broken (including this one). You must develop an intuition for what sounds right and looks right. You need a feel for good rhythm and a feel for what feels predictable.

How do you get this intuition? Reading books on writing is one place to start; I have learned something from every such book I’ve read. But besides some basic gifting and inclination, there are really only two indispensable means for growing into a good writer: writing a lot, and reading even more.