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Advice from Cormac McCarthy on Writing Great Science Papers

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2019

Since the 1990s, Pulitzer prizewinning novelist Cormac McCarthy has been a fixture at the Santa Fe Institute, a transdisciplinary research institute in New Mexico. During that time, he’s helped edit scientific papers for many faculty and postdocs. A pair of biologists, Van Savage & Pamela Yeh, recently condensed McCarthy’s scientific writing advice into an article for Nature.

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.

Inject questions and less-formal language to break up tone and maintain a friendly feeling. Colloquial expressions can be good for this, but they shouldn’t be too narrowly tied to a region. Similarly, 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.”

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. Your paper — you hope — is for posterity. Remember how you first read the papers that inspired you while you enjoy the process of writing your own.

Most of this is good advice for the writing in general.