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

How not to bore your audience at a reading, Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Am I the only one who finds literary readings boring? I usually avoided them. Then I had to go on book tour and tried not to bore people. I learned to think of myself as a performer rather than a reader.”

Here are some tips for writers who have to speak in front of audiences:

1. Do not be defensive and think that you are a writer and that writing is different from performing. I have seen poets who say that the words on the page are what matter and therefore they will read them with minimal interpretation. I invite them to do so in the privacy of their own rooms, because listening to them in public was painful (for me). …

2. Perform from a script rather than just read your book. I also like to blow up my font to 16- or 18-point size to make the text easier to see.

3. Make eye contact with your audience. Not just once or twice. Regularly. This will help keep the audience involved.

4. Do not just read 20- to 40-minutes straight while never looking up from your book and speaking in a soft monotone. PLEASE.

5. Consider reading just short excerpts and insert them into a story you are telling or a talk about some larger issue. Imagine what the larger story or talk is about

6. 
If you’re lucky enough to get an auditorium, dim the lights to get your audience in the mood for a performance. 

8.
Dress up, whatever that means to you.
 A vintage outfit, a motorcycle jacket, a cowboy hat. T.C. Boyle looks like a punk rock statesman.

9.
Consider visual aids
. T.C. Boyle has the advantage of actual movies made from his work that he can show. For my initial tour of The Sympathizer, I had a friend make a three-minute highlight reel from American movies of the war in Viet Nam.

10.
If you just cannot perform, consider having someone interview you
.

11.
Writing programs should teach their students how to perform.
 Just a one-unit course. 

12.
Last, bring energy to the room.
 Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand

Full details in his article at Lithub here.

See some Zadie Smith writing tips here.

Philip Roth on writing

If you write every day, eventually you’ll have a book.

I can’t explain the fact that there have been a series of books coming rather regularly out of me. I work most days and if you work most days and you get at least a page done a day, then at the end of the year you have 365.

-from a 2009 interview with Tina Brown for The Daily Beast

Learn to edit yourself.

Part of being a writer is being able to read what you’ve written and see what’s missing, see what needs development, see what’s suggested by what you wrote. It’s like a trampoline. You know, you’re jumping up and down on this draft, and each jump is an idea.

-from an interview with Robert Siegel at NPR

Write towards what works for the story (or for you).

You go with what’s alive. Two thousand pages of narrative and six lines of dialogue may be just the ticket for one writer, and two thousand pages of dialogue and six lines of narrative the solution for another.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Work sentence by sentence.

Solving the problem of the book you’re writing always remains hard work, and your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages … every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you’re doing is connecting one sentence to the next. And you write a sentence and you have to figure out what comes next or what doesn’t come next.

-from a 2013 interview with NPR

World echoing language and lacuna choices

Four observations on the power of language and lacuna.

Language can take us out of context. But, language and artistic choices will and should always reflect the wider world, when made public.

The choice to use a puppet to portray a severely autistic boy in a recent play in London has had much criticism from the wider world outside the play.*The creative decision is mediocre, but beyond that the social political world beyond the play cannot be ignored. We live in a world of metaphor and symbols.

The decision for a German CEO to use words that echo the phrase that appears on the entrance of Nazi Auschwitz, even if accidental shows a lack of judgment for the reflection it would bring to the wider  Germanic world.

The casting of a queer-phobic actor into a leading bisexual role (the Color Purple) has echoed angrily and awkwardly with queer audiences and creatives.

On the flip side, the New Zealand Prime Minster, Jacinda Ardern has evoked  “Damnatio memoriae”. In Roman times the state condemned the memory of a person and erased their name from history, it’s been done within many civilizations.

"I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless."

She’s condemned the recent terrorist to no name, such that their cause and “fame” fail.

Our words and actions echo like small and major myths. If you will speak to the wider world, the world will judge what words and actions you use.

*

https://www.thendobetter.com/arts/2019/3/6/autism-stories-representation-and-all-in-a-row-review

CEO blunder:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47566898

UK casting of Color Purple

http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/color-purple-gets-play-gay/

No name to the terrorist.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47620630