How to Write a Maxim
Maxims are extremely difficult to write on your own. That’s because it takes a tremendous amount of wisdom to come up with a good insight, and it takes great writing skills to express that insight in a pithy maxim. All you can really do is read and think about the world, and be ready to write down any pearls of wisdom that come to you along the way.
It might help, though, to practice concision. Concision is an extremely useful skill for any writer, and worth working on even if you don’t intend to use maxims in your own writing. Concision comes from cutting down on unnecessary words (remember Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s quote from §2) while maintaining clarity and rhythm. A few tips for more concise writing:
- Practice writing shorter sentences. Can you write an entire essay or story without going over 6 words in any sentence? More importantly, can you do this with writing that’s readable and clear? For most people, it’s a difficult task. But with practice, you can learn to write short sentences that still flow and still contain a wealth of interesting information and imagery.
- Use stronger verbs. The verb is the most important word in any sentence. It’s like a pivot, a hinge that the whole sentence turns on, and it contains the action of the sentence. Try to use action verbs rather than weak or uninformative ones:
Is an improvement on improves
Talked positively about praised
Gave her the name of… named her
Of course, it’s also important to use strong nouns, adjectives, prepositions, etc. – but verbs are the most important.
- Avoid redundancy. Make sure you’re not saying things more than once. In other words, say things one time and move on; don’t drag it out by repeating the same thing over and over again. That is, you shouldn’t restate or reiterate the same point with different words.
When to Use Maxims
Although many philosophers have written in maxims, this style is not recommended. For one thing, maxims tend to be ambiguous – that is, their meaning is not entirely clear. In formal writing, your job is to be as clear and straightforward as possible, which you can’t do if you write in maxims. In addition, maxims don’t give you the space to elaborate on your point, or to make an argument in favor of it. That means they’re not really appropriate in formal writing.
In creative writing, maxims can be a great way to give your characters a wise, witty, or educated vibe. Think of Yoda, Gandalf, or Tyrion Lannister: although these characters are quite different from each other, they all tend to employ pithy maxims in their dialogue. For example, Yoda’s most famous line is the maxim “Do or do not – there is no try.”
Keep in mind, though, that the character will only seem wise if the maxims are convincing. A wrongheaded or boring maxim will make the character seem foolish and conceited rather than wise. (Of course, if you want the character to seem foolish and conceited then a few bad maxims would be a great way to create that impression!)