General Writing Thoughts: The Medill Maxims

Source: The Odds novel website blog

Basic Writing was supposed to strike fear into my heart. Instead, it brought the world into relief.

When I attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the school’s curriculum required all freshmen to take a class called Basic Writing. Known as a weed-out course, the class was reputed to be one of the most challenging at Medill. And it was challenging, but it was challenging in the best way possible – you had too much fun to realize how hard you were working.

I had the good fortune to draw John Lampinen as my instructor. Lampinen managed to assemble a fascinating syllabus while working as one of the senior editors at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill., where he is currently the senior vice-president and editor.

During one of the first classes, he explained four basic rules that, when followed, would result in good writing. In my mind, I’ve come to call these rules The Medill Maxims. (Before I go on, let me be clear: I’m the only one who calls them that. Although I imagine any Medill professor would agree with these rules, they’re not included in the school’s handbook.)

Here they are:

1. Use active voice, not passive.
2. Choose specific verbs to power your writing.
3. Avoid the verb to be.
4. Avoid adverbs.

That’s it. Now, let’s talk about ‘em. A mere glance at this blog entry would reveal several instances where I’ve strayed from these four rules, beginning with the first line, “Basic Writing was supposed to strike fear into my heart.” Curses! There’s an instance of the verb to be! But even though I initially described these maxims as rules, they’re not actually ironclad rules – how could they be? No, instead they’re the four principles I use as the bedrock of my writing. Whenever the muse is absent, and I have to keep working, I think back to the Medill Maxims to carry me through. In his wonderful book On Writing, Stephen King called those muse-free times “Shoveling shit from a sitting position.” Believe me, I know what he’s talking about.

But let’s say you’re still skeptical. Let’s say you look at these four rules and think, “Great. Bob is suggesting I write nothing but noun-verb, noun-verb, noun-verb for the rest of my life.” I’m saying nothing of the sort, but all the same, let’s explore each of the four maxims.

1. Use active voice, not passive.

Any j-school grad or writing student has most likely heard this one. When constructing sentences, try to make them active. Here are some examples:

Active: Bob picked up the football.

Passive: The football was picked up by Bob.

You can recognize the dastardly passive voice by its reliance on the verb to be – another no-no – and the word by. Of course, you can’t always avoid the passive voice, and in some cases, it’s actually the right call. For example, in the case of a political assassination, a reporter would most likely lead with, “The head of state was assassinated,” both because the facts of the case might not be known, and because the head of state is the more important figure. On the day President Kennedy was assassinated, KLIF Radio in Dallas broke the news with: “Three shots reportedly were fired at the motorcade of President Kennedy.” Note that the passive voice was necessary because the identity of the assassin wasn’t known yet.

The passive voice is also preferable in rare cases where you want to preserve some element of mystery. I can imagine that the author of a whodunit might want to describe the actions of a murderer while protecting the identity of the killer from their readers.

That said, I encourage anyone reading to strive for as many active constructions as possible. The active voice will pump vitality into your prose and force you to subconsciously follow the other maxims.

2. Choose specific verbs to power your writing.

Here’s my favorite of the Medill Maxims. Prose should jump off the page and imprint indelible images in your readers’ mind and memory. And bear in mind that you won’t only be using specific verbs to describe your characters’ actions; specific verbs will describe every element of your imaginary world. Caves should yawn. Ravines should span. Trees should stretch. Light should flicker, glimmer and gleam.

You get the idea, but this is an important one, and it dovetails with the third and fourth maxims:

3. Avoid the verb to be.
4. Avoid adverbs.
(And if you’re asking me, I try to avoid leaning too hard on adjectives, too. Active, specific verbs are prime.)

I remember when Professor Lampinen first told us to avoid adverbs. I didn’t understand why, so I asked for an explanation. I remember his words well:

“Adverbs are the crutch of bad writers.”

And they are. A good writer should be able to choose specific verbs to tell their story. Furthermore, the interplay of these maxims pushes me to be more specific with my imagery. Let’s look at an example of a lazily written sentence:

The man was grotesquely fat.

Right away, we see two infractions: the verb to be (“was”) and an adverb (“grotesquely”). Let me stress: The reason why this sentence is weak isn’t just because it disobeys the maxims. This sentence is weak because it lacks specificity. How fat is the man? And what the heck does “grotesquely” mean in this context? Is he so morbidly obese that he needs someone to cart him around in a wheelbarrow? Does he have to weigh himself on a cattle scale? (See? We’re getting more specific already.) Or does “grotesque” in this case point more toward physical deformities? Maybe the man has chafing between his thighs and in his armpits from where they’ve rubbed together over the years. Maybe his ankles are swollen and his feet tinged blue from the onset of type-2 diabetes. (Not to digress, I want to add that I feel more forgiving of adverbs, adjectives and to be when they’re in the employ of specific details.)

Specific details. For my money, specific details trump all, and this leads me into a brief discussion of style. Of course, when it comes to the basics of style, you need to start with Strunk & White, aka The Elements of Style, but I’d also recommend William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Stephen King’s On Writing, as well as two books by Bill Walsh, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. (Walsh is a copy editor at the Washington Post, and I heartily agree with most of his thoughts on usage. He also maintains a great blog on writing, grammar and usage at TheSlot.com.)

You’ll notice a focus on books that extol the virtues of AP style. Even though no one will ever mistake me for a serious journalist, I respectfully submit that any professional writer should at least be familiar with AP style, mainly because so many websites, magazines and publications prefer it over other style manuals.

In addition to those great books, I would recommend that any writer endeavor to read authors who are detail-inhaling machines. Of course, there are legions of writers who fall into this category, but two of the best are Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace. Both Thompson and Wallace inhabited the world of journalism to varying degrees – Thompson as the progenitor of gonzo journalism; Wallace as a superhuman writer of nonfiction. They’ve both written thousands of words of copy, and I’d recommend these works:

By Thompson:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I reread Fear and Loathing whenever I need to give myself a kick in the literary junk. Thompson’s masterwork is simultaneously a novel and a memoir, a depraved tour-de-force and an obit for a glorious bygone era. Practically perfect in every way.

Hell’s Angels
The master of gonzo journalism looks into the world of one of the nation’s most infamous biker gangs.

The Great Shark Hunt, especially The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
I’m working from a fairly distant memory of this collection, but Kentucky Derby stands out for its mind-boggling attention to detail.

By Wallace:

Consider the Lobster
This collection of Wallace’s nonfiction includes his now-legendary account of a trip to the Adult Entertainment Expo and AVN’s adult movie awards, aka the Oscars of Porn. I can say with a straight face and a clear conscience that Wallace’s essay is pornographically detailed.

David Lynch Keeps His Head
An amazing article from a 1996 issue of the defunct Premiere Magazine, Keeps His Head is ostensibly an essay about a set visit to Lynch’s new movie Lost Highway, but instead, Wallace uses it as a launchpoint for an examination of Lynch’s genius. A must-read.

(Side note: Of course, any writer of fiction would do well to read Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest — a book I’ve yet to crack. Can we still be friends?)

There’s a larger conversation to be had about style, but I’ll save it for another entry. A moment ago, I said that specific details trump the need to obey the Medill Maxims. It took me some time to figure that out as a writer. Reading authors like Thompson and Wallace help me understand that a writer’s chief end is to tell their stories with the most vivid, accurate details possible, and in doing so, good writers will find their own style. I don’t think any writer ever fully settles on a style — style should always evolve as a writer grows — but for my part, the study of journalism, coupled with the reading of a zillion books, gave me a clearer picture of what constitutes good writing. The Medill Maxims are my bedrock. Here’s hoping every writer, aspiring or otherwise, can find their own bedrock and their own path.