Science-writing tips from Cormac McCarthy

The science journal Nature recently published tips from author Cormac McCarthy on ‘how to write a great science paper’. Though familiar with McCarthy’s novels,* I hadn’t known about his work elsewhere, which includes ‘extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico’.

Biologist Van Savage, co-author of the Nature article, knew McCarthy at the SFI and they worked together ‘to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points’, combined with ‘thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh’, the article’s other author. This means it’s not always clear whose language is used.

In any case, the resulting advice interests me both professionally – I’m a freelance copy-editor with a background in science – and personally, as someone who strives to write better but is leery of much of what passes for writing punditry.

A lot of what McCarthy and co. say is sensible, if sometimes short on context, and some of it will likely be familiar to you, since many of the same ideas about writing perennially do the rounds. Other tips, however, are dubious or infelicitously phrased.

I recommend that you read the original article before my annotated excerpts below, because I’ve skipped a lot of the good stuff: You don’t need to read me saying ‘I agree’ over and over. So off we go:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

Cover of Cormac McCarthy's book All the Pretty Horses. Background is brown, with large ornate white and yellow text, and no images. Under the author name and book title is a quote from the Guardian: "One of the greatest American novels of this or any time"This seems reasonable on the face of it, though biased towards a certain type of writing. McCarthy’s novels benefit from a minimalist style, but that won’t always suit science writing. Advising scientists to omit words and commas whenever possible makes it likely they’ll overdo it. Sometimes minimalism undermines clarity. Redundancy can be a feature, not a bug.

Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct. Concise, clear sentences work well for scientific explanations. Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words – such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ – so that the reader can focus on the main message.

Yes to short, simple, direct sentences. I edit a lot of academic writing, and I often turn 75- or 100-word sentences into multiple shorter ones. It’s possible to write giant sentences that readers will follow effortlessly (and may even enjoy), but this is an advanced skill that is beyond most writers. Long, complex sentences also tend to suit literary and legal contexts better than scientific ones.

‘Minimize clauses’ means not writing anything, or writing only fragments. I guess they mean subordinate clauses, or maybe the number of clauses in a single sentence. (This tip may be a victim of that drive for minimalism.)

Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links. Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly – it’s boring.

Footnotes have their place. It’s easy to use them to excess, of course, but I would not tell science writers to swear off them unless they’re outlawed by a house style. Jargon and technical language, too, are useful in certain contexts. Science writers writing for a scientifically literate audience is one such context.

As for ‘Don’t use the same word repeatedly – it’s boring’: I’m not sure what kind of words they mean – perhaps nonetheless, significantly, and other heavy, formal adverbs. It’s certainly okay to repeat the and of. And if you’re writing about, say, fungi, you’re going to use the word fungi a lot, and that’s not being boring, necessarily.

With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books.

If by ‘rule books’ they mean the likes of The Elements of Style, then ignoring them (at least initially) is a sound strategy. We can assume that there are rewriting, editing, and proofreading phases to fix anything that may have gone grammatically or orthographically awry between draft #1 and publication.

Dashes should emphasize the clauses you consider most important – without using bold or italics – and not only for defining terms. (Parentheses can present clauses more quietly and gently than commas.)

I would advise, instead, that you use pairs of dashes, parentheses (i.e., round brackets), and commas to present parenthetical material of different types. They should not be used to ‘emphasize the clauses you consider most important’. That’s what main clauses are for.

Don’t lean on semicolons as a crutch to join loosely linked ideas. This only encourages bad writing.

Yes, and yes. (ICYMI, I reviewed a book about semicolons recently.)

Use these words [surprisingly, intriguingly] only once or twice per paper.

I would not allow intriguingly to appear twice in a paper I was editing. Even once is pushing it. Maybe I have a high threshold for intrigue.

Use a personal tone because it can help to engage a reader. Impersonal, passive text doesn’t fool anyone into thinking you’re being objective: “Earth is the centre of this Solar System” isn’t any more objective or factual than “We are at the centre of our Solar System.”

You could make a case for We over Earth as the subject of that line, but not an irresistible one. Also, describing ‘Earth is the centre of this Solar System’ as ‘passive text’ seems to be a muddled way of saying that it lacks an explicit human agent. Be careful with ‘passive’ terminology.

When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work. Try to make life as easy as possible for your editing friends. Number pages and double space.

That’s good advice, especially reading aloud and finding a good editor.

Don’t rant to editors about the Oxford comma, the correct usage of ‘significantly’ or the choice of ‘that’ versus ‘which’. Journals set their own rules for style and sections. You won’t get exceptions.

Amen ­– unless the unwelcome deletion or addition of an Oxford comma interferes with the sense; ditto the use of that or which. This may be an apt time to quote from my A–Z of English usage myths:

We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it. So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity.

It’s a common pattern: Someone with influence repeats a dubious rule or notes a personal preference, and in time it becomes dogma for countless writers and editors. McCarthy and company, happily, did not get bogged down in this, instead stressing the importance of ‘keep[ing] it simple while telling a coherent, compelling story’.


* The Crossing featured in a book spine poem I made some years ago – one of few I’m happy with.


17 Responses to Science-writing tips from Cormac McCarthy

  1. John Cowan says:

    In the natural sciences, at least, journals don’t copy edit: what you send them is exactly what others see. Indeed, it is not unknown for them to print the penultimate draft, leaving your paper full of errors you have corrected.

  2. Roger Hill says:

    The last time I went to a Plain Language presentation (as listener),
    I took the opportunity to point out that while PL certainly puts
    together long bibliographies about plain language, I knew of no PL /teaching textbook/ for schools, neither in Canada nor the U.S; and I’d speculate nowhere in the “Anglosphere”, either. Textbooks for Business Communication (“BizComm”) may have a chapter or two. The closest the PL movement came to producing a /teaching textbook/, not for schools but for the Canadian civil service, was “Plain Language, Clear & Simple”, from Ottawa, 1988 and reprinted in the early 1990s. This PL book was /slight/ at 60 pages, and was accompanied by a much heftier instructor’s manual. The two books were intended for civil servants but could serve elswhere. I see their publication as countering the old view of the writing habits — and trickery — that the series “Yes, Minister” used to make fun of. They were out of print for decades but one of them may be back. Amazon offers the first of them, which is probably all anyone would need, just no sign of the instructor’s manual. And there’s equally no sign locally that the schools have picked up on PL, even though it’s a full century since Hemingway read the Kansas City Star’s style sheet.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Plain language will always struggle to go mainstream, I think. I didn’t encounter the idea explicitly in school or even university, though I imagine its profile has risen a bit since then, at least in certain areas. There’s an international association for it and various national centres and lobby groups, some of them purely advocacy groups and others more commercial.

      Books-wise I learned a lot from Ernest Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words, though I came to disagree with quite a lot of it as my understanding grew. Robert Goode Hogan’s The Plain Style: A Rhetoric and Reader is a useful anthology, though its gender imbalance is unfortunate. More recent publications beneficial to anyone interested in plain language include Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and John Kirkman’s Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology. A textbook along these lines, aimed specifically at schoolchildren or older students, would be welcome. (And maybe one exists, outside the ELT sphere; it’s a while since I looked.)

  3. astraya says:

    I’m more worried about the factual status of the statements “Earth is the centre of this Solar System” and “We are at the centre of our Solar System” (whichever we choose and why).

  4. […] Stan Carey of Sentence First, one of the better blogs about language, has posted about the novelist Cormac McCarthy‘s writing tips for scientific writers, many of which […]

  5. Stan Carey says:

    A comment via email from someone who doesn’t want to reveal their identity, for obvious reasons:

    I work in the publications department of an official legal function of the national government, but we’re not actually allowed to edit anything. The official legal people are offered optional sessions in official legal writing, but very few of them attend them. There is a team of proofreaders, but it isn’t compulsory that the official legal people send their documents to them, and when they do, the proofreaders aren’t actually allowed to change anything, merely ‘suggest’ changes, which the official legal people might accept but more often reject in bulk.

    As a result, many documents are sent out under the national coat of arms and the official legal person’s name with fundamental howlers (which we collect). It would be an understatement to say that we are very frustrated. Our first-, second- and third-level managers are working very hard to change this, but the fourth- and fifth-level executives just aren’t interested. Just occasionally, if there’s an error so blatant that it can’t be ignored, we can officially suggest to the official legal person that it should be changed, but even then they can say no.

    One of the stated aims of our official legal function is to promote public trust and confidence in our official legal function.

  6. Intriguingly? Yuck. :)

    I associate the verb intrigue with academic poseurs. E.g., “Wallace intrigues me”: meaning what? The speaker has thought vaguely about reading Infinite Jest? Has read it and wants to read other works? Wants to explore Wallace’s biography? Who knows? Surprisingly has much more going for it.

    • astraya says:

      I don’t how often I use ‘intriguingly’ in real life, but I searched my blog and found 17 instances in 600+ posts across 4 years. But never twice in the same post.

      Intriguingly (< see what I did there?), most are about the results of Google Ngram searches or dictionary definitions, which shows you what intrigues me the most in this world. I've never tried reading Infinite Jest, so I don't know if Wallace intrigues me or not.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The impression I often get from intriguingly is that the writer is concerned that readers will not find their work as interesting as they themselves believe it to be, so they lean on these loaded adverbs to try to force the desired reaction. The same goes for significantly, remarkably, interestingly, etc. They can be effective when used sparingly, but more often (in my editing experience) they’re used repeatedly as a heavy cue to prime a certain response, like the music soundtrack in a commercial film. In most cases, if the material is intriguing enough and described well enough, the cues become superfluous.

      (I liked Infinite Jest a lot, but I have never thought of Wallace’s work as ‘intriguing’ me, let alone described it thus.)

      • astraya says:

        Those words rarely occur in the material I edit, but having said that, I’ll probably start noticing them in every document today.

        (But would you listen to a movie without a soundtrack?)

        • astraya says:

          But I agree that these kinds of adverbs can be overused, rarely add anything and can almost always be omitted.

        • Stan Carey says:

          If you mean the music part of the soundtrack, then sure. I love a good film score, but I often find music used inappropriately or excessively in films; this is especially unfortunate when the music isn’t very good, original, or suitable. I’ve seen films without musical accompaniment, or with music used minimally, and it can work fine. (On the other hand: I love silent film, where the entire soundtrack is music.)

        • astraya says:

          I wasn’t really paying attention today, but I did notice an ‘Interestingly,’.

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