Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose

As we pointed out back in 2017, Cormac McCarthy, author of such gritty, blood-drenched novels as Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Road, and No Country for Old Men, prefers the company of scientists to fellow writers. Since the mid-nineties, he has maintained a desk at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific think tank, and has served as a volunteer copy-editor for several scientists, including Lisa Randall, Harvard’s first female tenured theoretical physicist, and physicist Geoffrey West, author of the popular science book Scale.

One of McCarthy's first such academic collaborations came after a friend, economist W. Brian Arthur, mailed him an article in 1996. McCarthy helped Arthur completely revise it, which sent the editor of the Harvard Business Review into a “slight panic,” the economist remembers. I can’t imagine why, but then I’d rather read any of McCarthy’s novels than most academic papers. Not that I don’t love to be exposed to new ideas, but it’s all about the quality of the writing.

Scholarly writing has, after all, a reputation for obscurity, and obfuscation for a reason, and not only in postmodern philosophy. Scientific papers also rely heavily on jargon, overly long, incomprehensible sentences, and disciplinary formalities that can feel cold and alienating to the non-specialist. McCarthy identified these problems in the work of associates like biologist and ecologist Van Savage, who has “received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy,” notes Nature, “on several science papers published over the past 20 years.”

During “lively weekly lunches” with the author during the winter of 2018, Savage discussed the finer points of McCarthy’s editing advice. Then Savage and evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh presented the condensed version at Nature for a wider audience. Below, we’ve excerpted some of the most striking of “McCarthy’s words of wisdom.” Find the complete compilation of McCarthy’s advice over at Nature.

  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity…. Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember…. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message.
  • Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct.
  • Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly—it’s boring.
  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant…. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section.
  • Choose concrete language and examples.
  • 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.
  • Finally, try to write the best version of your paper—the one that you like. You can’t please an anonymous reader, but you should be able to please yourself.
  • When you make your writing more lively and easier to understand, people will want to invest their time in reading your work.

As Kottke points out, “most of this is good advice for writing in general.” This is hardly a surprise given the source, though, as McCarthy’s primary body of work demonstrates, literary writers are free to tread all over these guidelines as long as they can get away with it. Still, his straightforward advice is an invitation for writers of all kinds—academic, popular, aspiring, and professional—to remind themselves of the fundamental principles of clear, compelling communicative prose.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Charles Bukowski Explains What Good Writing and the Good Life Have in Common

I have no politics, I observe. I have no sides except the side of the human spirit, which after all does sound rather shallow, like a pitchman, but which means mostly my spirit, which means yours too, for if I am not truly alive, how can I see you?

—Charles Bukowski, Notes of. Dirty Old Man

In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, his weekly column for the underground L.A. newspaper Open City, Charles Bukowski became the common man’s philosopher, issuing profundities amidst wild vulgarities and proving that he did, in fact, have a politics, as much as he had theories and contrarian half-thoughts and opinions aplenty. He took sides when it came to literature, at least—the side of Celine, Dostoevsky, and Camus, for example, against Faulkner, Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw (“the most overblown fantasy of the Ages”).

Bukowski had no room for cool appreciation or mild preference. With him, as with Catullus, life was love and hate. Get him talking on any subject and those loves and hates would emerge, as would his ideas about matters of most consequence: life, death, drinking, sex, and, of course, writing. In the interview clip above, for example, Bukowski is asked if he fears death. He answers, “No, in fact, I almost feel good at the approach of death.” This becomes a meditation on repetition and dullness, and on the “juice” that a good life—and good writing—requires.

…. You see, as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You understand? You keep seeing the same thing over and over again… so you get a little bit tired of life. So as death comes, you almost say, okay, baby, it’s time, it’s good.

The answer puts the interviewer in mind of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which sends Bukowski on one of his signature cranky critiques, also an introduction to his theory of prose, which can be summed up in just three syllables, “BIM BIM BIM!”—the sound he makes to show the “quickness” of a well-written line. Good writing needs “pace,” “life,” and “sunlight.” “Each line,” he says, “must be full of a delicious little juice, they must be full of power, they must make you like to turn a page, bim bim bim!” Writing like Lowry’s, he says, is “too leisurely.” There’s too much setup, too little payoff.

He may seem unfair to Lowry, but most writers bore Bukowski. After pages of tedious buildup, “when they get to the grand emotion, there isn’t any,” he says. Bukowski has never been one for subtlety, but no one can say his writing lacks  “juice” or grand emotion. On the contrary, he endears himself to so many aspiring writers (or aspiring male writers, in any case) because his poetry and prose are so electrifyingly alive. He had a limited range of subjects, mostly confined to his own thoughts, feelings, and drunken misadventures. Yet the voice that carries us through his violently funny tales and reveries, wicked and maudlin and tender by turns, seems capable of limitless invention.

“Writing must never be boring,” says Bukowski. He set a high bar, and he met it. As writers, we need not live his life to do the same. But we must each be “truly alive" in our own way to make our lines go bim bim bim. "Each line," he says, "must be an entity unto itself."

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Joyce Carol Oates Teaches a New Online Course on the Art of the Short Story

How on Earth does Joyce Carol Oates do it? Since her debut 56 years ago she has put out 58 novels, not to mention her poetry, plays, nonfiction, diaries, and thousands — literally thousands — of short stories. (In recent years, she's also written no small number of tweets.) But though she's spent decades with the adjective prolific attached to her name, none of us would know her name in the first place if her work had nothing more distinctive about it than its sheer volume. No matter how much a writer writes, all is for naught if that writing doesn't make an impact. The question of how to make that impact, in several senses of the word, lies at the heart of Oates' new online course offered through Masterclass.

"The most powerful writing often comes from confronting taboos," Oates says in the course's trailer above. "As a writer, if one can face the darkest elements in oneself, and the things that are secret, you have such a feeling of power." The truth of that comes through in any of Oates' novels, but also in her shorter works of fiction, even the early stories that make up her very first book, 1963's collection By the North Gate.

We might call her one of the writers whose short stories offer distillations of their sensibilities, and so it makes sense that her Masterclass focuses on "the Art of the Short Story." Its fourteen lessons cover such aspects of short-story writing as drafting, revising, and sharing; observing the world with a journal; and of course, "exploring taboo and darkness."

Oates draws examples from her own vast body of work, of course, including her much-reprinted short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" But she also examines the writing of such predecessors as Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as stories written by the two students who appear in the class videos. This is as close as most of us will ever get to being workshopped by Joyce Carol Oates, and if that appeals to you, you can take her Masterclass for $90 USD or buy the all-access pass to every course on the site (including courses taught by novelists like Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, and Neil Gaiman) for $15 per month. But be warned that, however daunting the prospect of tapping into one's own dark memories and forbidden thoughts, the question of how Oates does it has another, potentially more frightening answer: eight hours a day.

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Martin Amis Explains How to Use a Thesaurus to Actually Improve Your Writing

Among all novelists currently working in the English language, how many pay the attention to style Martin Amis does? And among all novelists who have ever worked in the English language, how many pay the attention to style Vladimir Nabokov did? No wonder that the former yields to none in his appreciation for the latter. "Amis has always wanted to see Nabokov as someone resembling his own critical self — essentially, a 'celebrator,' a man whose darkness and severities have been overstated," write The New Yorker's Thomas Mallon. Amis has explicitly taken note of "Nabokov’s disdain for sympathetic identification with fictional characters, and also of his belief that artistic effect was everything, the descriptor more important than the described."

Nabokov’s declaration that “for me, ‘style’ is matter,” Mallon writes, "remains almost fearfully thrilling to Amis." And it is with one of Nabokov's principles on style that Amis begins in the Big Think video above. "There is only one school of writing," he quotes Nabokov as writing. "That of talent." You can't teach talent, of course, "but what you can do is instill certain principles," one of them being "the importance of ugly repetition." But then, "repetition has its uses, and anything is better than trying to avoid repetition through what they call 'elegant variation'" — the use, which Amis dismisses as pointless, of "using a different word when there's no change in meaning."

Most of us commit elegant variation with thesaurus in hand; hence, it would seem, that particular reference book's reputation as the tool of second-class writers and worse. But Amis himself uses the thesaurus, and heavily, as a means of "avoiding repetition of prefixes and suffixes" — he cites Nabokov's changing the title of Invitation to an Execution to Invitation to a Beheading — "as well as rhymes and half-rhymes, unintentional alliteration, et cetera." People assume "thesauruses are there so you can look up a fancy word for 'big,'" when in fact they serve their true purpose when you come to a point in a sentence "where you're unhappy with the word you've chosen not because of its meaning, but because of its rhythm. You may want a monosyllable for this concept, or you may want a trisyllable."

A writer like Amis, or indeed Nabokov (who learned English after his native Russian), will also "make sure they're not visiting an indecorum on the word's derivation." This requires nothing more than the humble dictionary, to check, for example, whether dilapidated can describe a hedge as well as a building. (It can't, and Amis explains why.) "When you look up a word in the dictionary, you own it in a way you didn't before," says Amis, who estimates that he does it himself a dozen times a day. "It's very labor-intensive. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get your sentence right rhythmically, and to clear the main words in it from misuse. And all you're winning is the respect of other serious writers. But I think any amount of effort is worth it for that."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Jane Austen Fiction Manuscript Archive Is Online: Explore Handwritten Drafts of Persuasion, The Watsons & More

I first came to Jane Austen prepared to dislike her, reared as I had been to think of good fiction as socially transgressive, experimental, full of heavy, life-or-death moral conflicts and existentialist anti-heroes; of extremes of dread and sorrow or alienated extremes of their lack. Austen’s characters seemed too perky and perfect, too circumscribed and wholesome, too untroubled by inner despair or outer calamity to offer much in the way of interest or example.

This is an opinion shared by more perceptive readers than myself, including Charlotte Brontë, who called Pride and Prejudice “an accurate daguerreotype portrait of a commonplace face.” Brontë “disliked [Austen] exceedingly,” writes author Mary Stolz in an introduction to Emma. The author of Jane Eyre pronounced that "Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant," where a novelist like George Sand is "sagacious and profound."

A cursory reading of Austen can seem to confirm Brontë’s faint praise. Consider the first description of her heroine matchmaker, Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

No great, shocking disasters befall Emma. She is buffeted neither by war nor poverty, crime, disease, oppression or any other essentially dramatic conflict. She ends the novel joining hands in marriage with charming gentleman farmer Mr. Knightly, content, maybe ever-after, in “perfect happiness.”

Rarely if ever in Austen do we find the torments, spiritual strivings, sublime and grotesque imaginings, proto-science-fiction, and world-historical consciousness of contemporaries like William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Mary Shelley. Austen is “famous,” writes Stolz, “for having lived through the period of the French Revolution without ever mentioning it in her writings.”

To see this as a critique, however, is to seriously misjudge her. “She did not deal in revolutions of this order. Not a traveled woman, she wrote only of what she knew”: life in English country villages, the travails of “love and money,” as she put it, the everyday longings, courtesies, and discourtesies that make up the majority of our everyday lives.

We can see Austen doing just that in her own hand at the Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition. A collection of scanned manuscripts from the Bodleian, British Library, Pierpont Morgan Library, private collectors, and King’s College, Cambridge, this project “represents every stage of her writing career and a variety of physical states: working drafts, fair copies, and handwritten publications for private circulation.”

This is primarily a resource for scholars; much of this work has been published in printed editions, including the Juvenilia (read some of that writing here) and unfinished drafts like The Watsons and her last, uncompleted, novel, Sanditon. (One still-in-print 1975 edition collects the three unfinished novels found at the digital collection). Each digital edition of the manuscript includes a head note on the textual history, provenance, and physical structure, as well as a transcription of the text. There is also an option to view a "diplomatic edition" that transcribes the text with all of Austen's corrections and additions.

Yet any Austen fan will appreciate seeing her witty, incisive style change and take shape in her own neat script. In an age of superheroes, historical and fantasy epics, and dystopian fantasies, we are beset by “the big Bow-Wow strain,” as Walter Scott self-effacingly called his own novels. In Austen’s writing, we find what Scott described as an “exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.” She wraps her truths in wicked irony and a satirical voice, but they are truths we recognize as wise and compassionate in her domestic dramas and our own.

Austen knew well that her settings and characters were limited. She made no apologies for it and clearly needn’t have. “Three or four families in a country village,” she wrote to her niece Anna, “is the very thing to work on.” She also knew well the universal tendencies that blind us to the variety found within the everyday, whether our everyday is a sleepy country village life or a tech-laden, 21st-century city.

She almost seems to sigh wearily in Emma when she observes, “human nature is so well disposed toward those who are in interesting situations” … so much so that we fail to notice what’s going on all around us all the time. She wrote neither for money nor fame, and her work wasn’t even published with her name until after her death in July 1817, but she has since become fiercely beloved for the very qualities Brontë disparaged.

Austen didn’t miss a thing, which makes her novels as canny and insightful (and big-screen and fan-fiction adaptable) as when they were first written over two-hundred years ago. Enter the Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Anton Chekhov’s Six Rules For Writing Fiction

Whether due to insecurity, inexperience, or just intellectual curiosity, writers of fiction can sometimes privilege sounding smart over connecting with their readers. The result is the dreaded “information dump,” an attempt to include everything: everything, that is, but that which makes fiction compelling: minutely detailed descriptions of characters we care about; sharply observed situations that move us; moral complexity that feels earned and genuine…

All qualities that might fall under the adjective “Chekhovian.”

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, country doctor and masterful short story writer, put himself through medical school by writing fiction readers could not put down. He has since become a standard for realist concision—the short story analogue to Gustave Flaubert’s mastery of the novel form.

And like Flaubert, Chekhov mastered his art by placing strict limits on himself. These he outlined in an 1886 letter to his brother Aleksandr in a concise six-point list, which you’ll find below.

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature;
  2. Total objectivity;
  3. Truthful description of persons and objects;
  4. Extreme brevity;
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype;
  6. Compassion

Many of these prescriptions can sound like the CIA-approved rules informally enforced by the 20th-century Iowa Writer's Workshop. One can draw a line from Chekhov to Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and other writers likely to have appeared in The New Yorker. But many writers besides Chekhov have complained of overly verbose, opinionated fiction.

19th century writer Henry James disparaged what he called the “large loose baggy monsters” of Fyodor Dostoevsky and other serial novelists, for example. Another novelist, Jay McInerney takes a phrase from Renaissance scholar Walter Pater to describe the brevity of the short story: the form, he writes, creates a “hard, gemlike flame.” This seems to be what Chekhov strove for in his mature work.

But three years earlier, he had perfected a very different kind of story, and issued a very different list of prescriptions to his brother. In 1883, Chekhov advised that if Aleksandr wished to get published in the magazine Fragments, he should observe the following: “1. The shorter, the better; 2. A bit of ideology and being up to date is most à propos; 3. Caricature is just fine, but ignorance of civil service ranks and of the seasons is strictly prohibited.”

We can see the author’s noted concern for accuracy, but not the ultimate and most concise item on his mature list: Compassion, a quality that eclipses typology and ideology. Chekhov may not always have adhered closely to some of his own rules, as ethnographic writer Kirin Narayan shows. After all, who can achieve “total objectivity”? But “embedded” in this ideal is “the recognition” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, “that no depiction of reality is realistic unless it includes an empathic account of all perspectives.”

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Steven Pinker’s 13 Rules for Good Writing

Photo by Rose Lincoln, via Wikimedia Commons

What is good writing? The question requires context. Each type of writing has its norms. Some guidelines apply across disciplines—consult your Strunk and White or any of the hundreds of handbooks recommending strong verbs and minimal use of passive voice. Still, you wouldn’t necessarily put the question to an experimental poet if your concern is informative writing (though maybe you should). Maybe better to ask a scholar who writes clear prose.

Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker could serve as such a guide, given the popularity of his books with the reading public (their debatable merits for certain critics aside). Luckily for his readers—and those generally seeking to better their writing—Pinker has offered his services free on Twitter with a 13-point list of rules. Unlikely to cause controversy among English teachers, Pinker’s guidelines enact the succinctness they recommend.

Rants about the unintelligibility of academic writing have become genre all their own, but jargon and specialized terminology have their place in certain niches, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with difficulty. Readers can argue amongst themselves about whether some kinds of writing are needlessly overcomplicated. (Fairly or not, poststructuralist French philosophers take a beating on this score, but spend some time with Kant or Hegel and see how easily you breeze through.)

Yet most of us are not professional philosophers, scientists, or theorists writing only for colleagues or coteries. When we write, we want to communicate clearly: to inform, persuade, and even entertain a general readership. In order to do that, we need to minimize abstractions, appeal to the senses, clear away clutter and make connections for our readers. Revision is key. Reading aloud gives the ear a chance to weed out clumsiness the eye can miss. All of these trusted strategies appear in Pinker’s list.

One point Pinker adds to the usual prescriptions has a suitably psychological bent, and an oddly Biblical-sounding name: the “Curse of Knowledge.” Knowing too much about a subject can make it “hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it.” For those who want to know more about clear, concise writing, or who need the inevitable refresher from which even the knowledgeable benefit, see Pinker’s 13 rules below or on Twitter.

  1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why? 
  2. Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.
  3. Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”
  4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”
  5. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: when you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms & technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, & prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else.
  6. Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).
  7. Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).
  8. Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.
  9. Save the heaviest for last: a complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.
  10. Prose must cohere: readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.”
  11. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.
  12. Read it aloud.
  13. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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