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Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper

28 September 2019

From Nature:

For the past two decades, Cormac McCarthy — whose ten novels include The RoadNo Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian — has provided extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico. He has helped to edit works by scientists such as Harvard University’s first tenured female theoretical physicist, Lisa Randall, and physicist Geoffrey West, who authored the popular-science book Scale.

Van Savage, a theoretical biologist and ecologist, first met McCarthy in 2000, and they overlapped at the SFI for about four years while Savage was a graduate student and then a postdoc. Savage has received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy on several science papers published over the past 20 years. While on sabbatical at the SFI during the winter of 2018, Savage had lively weekly lunches with McCarthy. They worked to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points so that it could be shared with everyone. These pieces of advice were combined with thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh and are presented here. McCarthy’s most important tip is to keep it simple while telling a coherent, compelling story. The following are more of McCarthy’s words of wisdom, as told by Savage and Yeh.

  • 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.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember. This theme and these points form the single thread that runs through your piece. The words, sentences, paragraphs and sections are the needlework that holds it together. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message. A single sentence can be a paragraph. Each paragraph should explore that message by first asking a question and then progressing to an idea, and sometimes to an answer. It’s also perfectly fine to raise questions in a paragraph and leave them unanswered.

. . . .

  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant. Your paper is not a dialogue with the readers’ potential questions, so don’t go overboard anticipating them. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section. Don’t say both ‘elucidate’ and ‘elaborate’. Just choose one, or you risk that your readers will give up.
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    And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every tangential point and list all possible qualifications for every statement. Just enjoy writing.

  • With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.

Link to the rest at Nature

Non-Fiction, Writing Advice

2 Comments to “Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper”

  1. I always figured academics tried very hard to make it difficult for to understand what they were saying.

  2. In 2012 there was a beautiful paper that is a great example of how scientific papers are filled with many words that do not actually say anything. The paper was so good I was saying, Yes! that’s it!, then I started noticing odd things that made me go, Jabberwocky?

    This talks about the paper, with a link to the pdf. Download it and gaze in wonder and awe. There is so much to learn from the incident.

    Case Western explains why it withdrew press release about Andrulis origin of life paper
    http://retractionwatch.com/2012/01/28/case-western-explains-why-it-withdrew-press-release-about-andrulis-origin-of-life-paper/

    The PZ Myers’ link on the page is broken. This link works.

    The comparison to jabberwocky is inevitable
    https://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/01/27/the-comparison-to-jabberwocky

    The guidelines suggested by Cormac McCarthy are useful. I have one paper I plan on writing.

    – The Decay Properties of Supernatural Entities

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