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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Cor­mac McCarthy Became a Copy-Edi­tor for Sci­en­tif­ic Books and One of the Most Influ­en­tial Arti­cles in Eco­nom­ics

Cor­mac McCarthy’s Three Punc­tu­a­tion Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Cor­mac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Work­ing: How 9‑to‑5 Jobs Lim­it Your Cre­ative Poten­tial

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

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