Science-writing tips from Cormac McCarthy

November 18, 2019

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.

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Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

November 19, 2018

Misnegation is an obscure word for a common phenomenon. You won’t find it in dictionaries, but you can probably figure out that it means some kind of ‘incorrect negation’ – not to be confused with double negatives (‘multiple negation’), criticism of which tends to be dubious.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

Misnegation is where we say something with negatives in it that don’t add up the way we intend. We lose track of the logic and reverse it inadvertently. For example, I might say that the likelihood of misnegation cannot be understated, when I mean it cannot be overstated – it is, in fact, easily understated.

Misnegation often occurs with overstate or understate, overestimate or underestimate, but it can take many, many forms. It pops up in all sorts of places, including large print on official signs, as this example from Helen Stevens shows. Even Hägar the Horrible once said, ‘I miss not having’ when he really meant ‘I miss having’:

Hägar the Horrible cartoon with two panels. Panel 1: Hägar and friend are walking in a snowy landscape. Hägar says, "This is the only time of year when I miss not having a nine-to-five job!" His friend asks why. Panel 2, panned back showing evergreen trees, and undulating landscape, and more snow. Hägar says: "I never get to go to an office Christmas party!"

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The process of removing ‘process’ from your writing

October 14, 2018

The process of writing is in large part a rewriting and an editing process. After the process of getting some text down, you begin the rearranging process and the snipping process. This process is—

Wait, let me try that again.

Writing is in large part rewriting and editing. After getting some text down, you begin rearranging and snipping. This is…

Much better.

In my work as a copy-editor, especially with academic and business texts, I see superfluous process a lot. It’s a popular crutch word, established among writers’ unconscious bad habits.

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Cybersecurity Style Guide is a useful editing tool

March 2, 2018

Most people reading this will have partial or passive familiarity with some terminology from programming, information security, and related domains, but they may have just a hazy grasp of how they’re used. What’s the difference between DOS and DoS? Does cold call take a hyphen? Is it a SQL or an SQL? How do you pronounce ASCII? What’s a dictionary attack?*

DoS, cold call, SQL, and ASCII are on the familiar side of digital and infosec jargon. Most industry phrases and abbreviations are more obscure, so they’re not listed in dictionaries. Security consulting company Bishop Fox has done a real service to editors and writers by publishing a modern Cybersecurity Style Guide. The first version, released last month, contains 1,775 entries.

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The suspended en dash, an editorial curio

February 1, 2018

Among a copy editor’s typographic tools is the useful trick known variously as the suspended hyphen, suspensive hyphen, dangling hyphen, hanging hyphen, and floating hyphen. It’s the first hyphen in phrases like sales- and service-related queries and sisters- and brothers-in-law. It helps ensure they’re not misread.

The suspended hyphen is not always deployed, and it’s seldom seen in casual writing, but it’s a moderately common device in edited prose. But I’ll wager you’ve rarely or never seen its extended cousin: the suspended en dash. Behold!

Image showing a paragraph from Jonathan Lethem's book "The Disappointment Artist". Relevant text is reproduced just below.

This is from Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist: And Other Essays (Faber and Faber, 2005). Here’s the text of interest:

… requiring Talking Heads– or Elvis Costello–style ironies …

We’ll leave Talking Heads aside for now. They can chat among themselves. The en dash in Elvis Costello–style ironies is an editorial nicety often skipped. My guess is that most readers wouldn’t notice if it was a hyphen or a space instead, and some will be nonplussed by the dash if they notice it at all. So I’ll explain.

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In-house editing tips

November 19, 2017

Editing texts at work – reports, circulars, strategic plans and the like – is a vital step in preparing them to communicate their content as well as possible. Hiring a professional editor is generally a good idea, but if the text is for in-house use only, that may be overkill.

In this situation, editing is assigned to a company employee who is not a professional editor but has a good command of English prose. The question is, how do you do it? Where do you start? What do you prioritise?

My friends at Emphasis Training asked me to break down the job of editing texts at work. My article is now up on the Emphasis website: The smart way to edit your colleagues’ documents. It offers 23 bite-sized tips. Here are two:

Edit like for like

Review similar items together, for example all the tables and captions, or all the headings and subheadings. Clumping these tasks means you’re looking out for the same things at once, which reduces the cognitive load and also the chances of overlooking something.

Read for logic

Office reports are often written by more than one person or over a period of time. This can lead to disjointed prose: lines may be added or changed without due regard for context, causing breaks in flow. If your work environment permits it, read the text aloud. This will help you notice any awkward phrasing or non sequiturs.

You can read the rest here.


Link love: language (70)

November 9, 2017

For your reading, listening, and viewing pleasure, here are some language-related links that have caught my eye in recent weeks, or rather months – it has been ages since I did a linkfest.

If you want a more regular supply, follow my Twitter account @StanCarey, where I often share these first.

Why writing matters.

EU English after Brexit.

Stealth marketing for editors.

The drit, or dirt, on metathesis.

Clotilde Olyff’s pebble alphabet.

Towards a new vocabulary of nature.

Emily Wilson’s radical Odyssey translation.

Editing can make all the difference to a book.

Why white people should never rap the n-word.

How Irish nature words connect us to history and place.

How the suffix -tron captured the spirit of a technological age.

What happens in the brain when an adult learns to read.

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