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(The Road/Dimension Films)

Here's How to Write a Good Science Paper, According to a Bestselling Novelist

PETER DOCKRILL
30 SEP 2019

Cormac McCarthy knows a thing or two about good writing.

He's the visionary who gave us The Road, No Country for Old Men, and a list of other acclaimed novels. He's won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and just about every other literature award; film adaptations of his works have been seen by millions of people around the world.

 

On top of all this, it turns out McCarthy has also found time to moonlight as a copy editor for scientific papers, collaborating with researchers at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico for the past two decades – in addition to editing the work of other prominent scientists, including Harvard physicist Lisa Randall.

We know this thanks to a fascinating article by SFI researchers Van Savage and Pamela Yeh, who have shared a condensed list of McCarthy's views on what makes for good scientific writing.

If you want to potentially improve your own writing (not necessarily science papers), you really should read Savage and Yeh's list, which they based on their history of working with the novelist. We've handpicked 10 of our favourite tips below.

Use minimalism to achieve clarity
McCarthy has a famously distinct style, and is extremely minimalist with punctuation. In that vein, McCarthy says you should remove extra words or punctuation whenever you can, as long as the sense of meaning is preserved.

Limit each paragraph to a single message
You don't want too much going on in a single block of text. According to McCarthy, you should only explore one single message or idea in each paragraph.

Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct
Cut down on extraneous language wherever possible, using concise and clear sentences to make your point.

Don't slow the reader down
In McCarthy's view, things like jargon, footnotes, and repetitious language all serve as distractions that only get in the way of the reader's experience.

Don't over-elaborate
There's no need to say the same thing multiple times, or use multiple words to convey effectively the same message.

Refer to spoken language and common sense
"It's more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence," Savage and Yeh say, so you can often forgo formal grammar (within reason) if more casual, spoken English makes your point clearly.

Commas denote pauses
Much like the above point about spoken language, commas in speech denote pauses in speech. You can strategically use commas in your writing the same way to distinguish clauses.

Choose concrete language and examples
Simple visual ideas, like a red balloon, are much easier for a reader to understand than ambiguous concepts that are hard or impossible to visualise.

Read your work aloud when you're done
And find a good editor you trust.

Try to write the best version of your paper
Pleasing yourself is a more achievable goal than pleasing an anonymous reader in your imagination.

Those are 10 selections from McCarthy's words of wisdom – as remembered by Savage and Yeh – but be sure to check out their full listing, which has lots more important points to remember.