Advice from Cormac McCarthy on writing science papers

This from Nature. Aimed at science papers but useful to dwell on for all types of writing. Note his writing has a pared back style, and I sense that underlies his advice. He is world class, so it works!

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.

• Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct. Concise, clear sentences work well for scientific explanations. Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.

• Don’t slow the reader down. Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links. 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. 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.

• 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.

• Commas denote a pause in speaking. The phrase “In contrast” at the start of a sentence needs a comma to emphasize that the sentence is distinguished from the previous one, not to distinguish the first two words of the sentence from the rest of the sentence. Speak the sentence aloud to find pauses.

• Dashes should emphasize the clauses you consider most important — without using bold or italics — and not only for defining terms. (Parentheses can present clauses more quietly and gently than commas.) Don’t lean on semicolons as a crutch to join loosely linked ideas. This only encourages bad writing. You can occasionally use contractions such as isn’t, don’t, it’s and shouldn’t. Don’t be overly formal. And don’t use exclamation marks to call attention to the significance of a point. You could say ‘surprisingly’ or ‘intriguingly’ instead, but don’t overdo it. Use these words only once or twice per paper.

• 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.”

• Choose concrete language and examples. If you must talk about arbitrary colours of an abstract sphere, it’s more gripping to speak of this sphere as a red balloon or a blue billiard ball.

• Avoid placing equations in the middle of sentences. Mathematics is not the same as English, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. To separate equations from text, you can use line breaks, white space, supplementary sections, intuitive notation and clear explanations of how to translate from assumptions to equations and back to results.

• 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. Try to make life as easy as possible for your editing friends. Number pages and double space.


Messy, Borges, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Jorge Luis Borges once told of the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, a fabled Chinese encyclopedia. 


This tome, according to Borges (highly likely Borges invented these himself), organised animals into categories: 


(a) pertenecientes al Emperador,

(b) embalsamados,

(c) amaestrados, 

(d) lechones,

(e) sirenas, 

(f) fabulosos, 

(g) perros sueltos, 

(h) incluidos en esta clasificación, 

(i) que se agitan como locos, 

(j) innumerables, 

(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, 

(l) etcétera, 

(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, 

(n) que de lejos parecen moscas. 


a) belonging to the Emperor,

b) embalmed,

(c) trained (or tame; Eliot Weinburg translates as tame, but trained is more literal),

(d) suckling pigs (Weinburg) or piglets,

(e) Sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs [EW] (or loose dogs),

(h) included in this classification [present classification, EW],

(i) frenzied [EW]  (or crazed or agitated like crazy), (

j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair, (

l) et cetera (m) having just broken the vase (EW water pitcher], (

n) that from afar seem like flies [that from a long way off like like flies, EW]

[ offer my own translation alongside the classic one attrib. to Eliot Weinberger, I think]


Borges wrote these in response to John Wilkins (a 17th century philospher) who had proposed a universal language and classification system.


Tim Harford in Messy offers this:


This looks like a joke, but like other Borgesian jokes, it is serious. Most of these apparently absurd categories have practical merit. Sometimes we need to classify things according to who owns them; at other times we must describe their physical attributes, and different physical attributes will matter in different contexts. Sometimes we must be terribly specific–a cat is not a good substitute for a sucking pig if you are preparing a feast, and if we are to punish wrongdoing (whether breaking a pitcher or committing an armed robbery) we must identify the wrongdoer and no one else. But while each category is useful, in combination they are incoherent, and the encyclopedia sounds delectably unusable. Borges shows us why trying to categorise the world is not as straightforward as we like to believe. Our categories can map to practical real-world cases or they can be neat and logical, but rarely both at once.”


It’s a wonderous and insightful riposte to clean tidiness of exact categories.


Maybe he could have said of humans:


  1. Belonging to God

  2. Dead

  3. Law-abiding

  4. Babies

  5. Seductive

  6. Star-Shaped

  7. Nomadic

  8. Uncategorised

  9. Crazy

  10. City-Dwellers

  11. Captured on digital image

  12. Other

  13. Having just made something

  14. Having just broken something

  15. Look like slow moving ants