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.


Stephen Jeffrey’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

Stephen Jeffrey’s manual on how to write plays is brilliant. He had a celebrated series of workshops he used to do, although I never made it to one. The book covers character, form, structure and story in one of the most accessible, comprehensive and erudite fashion. Great for an enthusiastic beginner or seasoned writer alike.

One short passage “your characters do not necessarily understand their motivations, and that the gap between characters’ stated intentions and their deeper motivations is a very fruitful area for the playwright. Indeed, you may not fully understand your character yourself. During rehearsals for the second production of my play The Libertine, I asked John Malkovich, who was playing the Earl of Rochester, what he thought the play was actually about. He replied by saying that he thought Rochester was a man who had been given every conceivable physical and intellectual gift and had quite deliberately proceeded to waste them. On hearing this for the first time, I not only understood my play, but realised for the first time why I had written it. In a sense, the characters you write will never be entirely knowable, just as you will never entirely understand the people you meet in life..."

If you are interested in the structure of plays (and also film and some similarities/differences), I can recommend it.

Stephen Jeffrey’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

What’s a performance lecture?

It’s a form of anti-TED talk.

Existing since the 1960s as a subgenre of performance, the lecture-performance or performance-lecture has its roots in the performance and conceptual art of the 1960s, and balances on the boundary between art and academia.

It’s a type of presentation that goes beyond the academic format of the lecture. Artists (not only visual or performance) use the lecture to turn it into a performance space which fuses aspects of drama and of visual and other media disciplines.


It’s hybrid nature then often expresses in borrowed hybrid elements such as storytelling, the mass media, internet, adverts, slogans, images, and technology.

The performance lecture at its best has varied functions and elements operating on multiple levels. These can form a visual rhetoric or performative actions and artistic non-sequiturs  Techniques of advertising and propaganda or more straight forward education lectures and slides are used to explore the relationship between the image and the text or between consensus and the facts, or contrasting ideas or narratives.

In its artistic investigations the relationship of perception and of understanding, the audience and the performer and performance ideas can all come under scrutiny.

In that sense it is nothing like a Ted talk. It’s almost an anti-Ted Talk.

A TED talk gives you an idea and a smooth talker and tells you it’s the truth.

A performance-lecture gives you a part-idea that you have to complete, challenges you to assess its truth, your truth and the performers truth and like all good theatre can leave you activated and different from when you started.