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Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper (2019) (nature.com)
145 points by bryanrasmussen 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 105 comments

>> And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.

This is the worst possible advice to give about technical writing! What you should absolutely do if you want your readers to know what you're talking about is a) define your terminology before you use it and b) stick to the terminology you defined throughout the entire paper. Don't call a thing "red noppertock" the first time you mention it and then "crimson nopper with a tock" the next time. Call the same object, the same concept, the same method by the same name, always. Otherwise, you will only create confusion and make your reader tired and impatient.

"Boring" is not a flaw, in technical writing. The purpose of technical writing is not to entertain, but to explain and clarify. Creative writing is a completely different thing. The worst mistake you can ever make is confuse the two and treat a paper like a short story, or such.

Trust me, I know. What McCarthy advises above is exactly the mistake I made in my first research papers and they all got rejected with frustrated comments by confused reviewers who pointed out they had no idea what I meant when I used a particular term. I had to take a course with an academic writing expert at my university, to realise what I was doing wrong: I was trying to add variety to my writing, just like in literary, creative writing. I stopped that as soon as I realised how wrong it was and now I actually get reviewer comments about the clarity and quality of the writing in my papers. And as _writing_ goes, it's boring as all hell, but it gets the point across without doubt. That's its purpose.

I'd encourage you to take McCarthy's advice a bit more seriously. He isn't saying you should just use different words willy nilly, throwing their technical meaning out the window. He's just saying that you shouldn't excessively repeat words.

Avoiding repetition can also mean structuring your writing in a way that allows you to rely on pronouns and other linguistic tools to avoid using the same word repeatedly while preserving clarity.

And I often find that technical writers don't do a good job of evaluating which terms need to be treated as rigidly defined technical terms and which ones do not, resulting in writing that it more stilted and jargon laden than necessary to communicate clearly. One benefit of taking McCarthy's advice seriously is that it will encourage you to scrutinize your decisions about when to rely on jargon and defined terms and help you identify where you're using them as a crutch to avoid harder decisions about how to write clearly.

The goal is not to be "entertaining." Rather, it is simply to should be to hold the reader's attention so you're not making huge claims on their ability to focus. I wouldn't be so quick to give up on this and embrace the "papers should be boring" mindset. The basic problem is that an extremely tedious paper does not "get your point across without doubt." It may not even get your point across at all because it pains readers to read it.

Of course, none of this should be construed to mean that people should use "thesaurus words"--i.e., words that are overly obscure or a poor fit for the situation, just for the sake of mixing it up.

>> I wouldn't be so quick to give up on this and embrace the "papers should be boring" mindset

I never said, nor meant, that "papers should be boring", or even that technical writing should be boring. What I said, exactly, was:

"Boring" is not a flaw, in technical writing.

I think it's interesting how not only your comment, but those of others, misread that part of my comment and made a jump from "boring is not a flaw" to "papers should be boring".

The reason I think it is interesting is because it reveals the amount of work that must go into a technical text to avoid such misunderstandings. For every single statement that matters, for every single point that is made, in a paper, there is a number of ways to misunderstand it, of varying degrees of obvious-ness. As a paper author, you have to try to think of each and every one of them, try to predict how likely it is that different kinds of readers will commit those kinds of misundestanding, and then try to defend your text against the most likely ones, at the very least. Since some of your readers are going to be reviewers, doing this well is the difference between getting your paper published, getting it rejected, or having it accepted with "minor" revisions (which are only so "minor" as the possibility for misunderstandings, so usually, not that much). So this anticipation of potential misunderstandings is a vital, essential skill that you develop as a paper writer.

Er. I mean "scientist", of course.

For this (oops) reason, I disagree with the use of pronouns etc. I actively try to avoid sentences like "This suggests" or "That means" or "It is an efficient way to" etc. just because I'm sure that "this", "that", "it", and their friends, will only serve to misdirect the reader's attention. Because when you write "it", you're thinking of X, but when the reader reads "it", they are actually thinking of Y, just because they're more interested in Y, so "it" is just a point of confusion. And that (oops) will _always_ happen because the author of a paper and the paper's readers will have different interests and tend to focus on different parts of a paper.

The way I think about the use of pronouns is a little bit like loops in assembly: you want to "unroll" them to improve efficiency. Similarly, I always "dereference" pointer-words like pronouns etc, to remove ambiguity.

Fair enough. You didn't quite say that "papers should be boring."

But you've overlooked the point of the paragraph you quote, which is that the issue isn't really whether a paper is boring or entertaining. It's about whether it is tedious or engaging. And being tedious certainly is a flaw in technical writing. The problem with tedious writing is that fewer people will actually read it and those that do will become fatigued, lose focus, and may not understand the document even if it uses language in a crystal clear way.

I hear you on the risks inherent in the use of pronouns. Not using pronouns at all is certainly one strategy for addressing the risk of ambiguity or misunderstanding, but it is one with the serious disadvantage of making your text burdensome to read. And it certainly is not true that all pronoun use is ambiguous or misleading. You just have to be careful in how you use them. This can be difficult, but the reward is that you produce a piece of writing that it both clear and engaging (perhaps even not boring).

FWIW its worth, I'm a lawyer. So I have my fair share of experience with one type of technical writing where clarity is particularly important. But given that our job is to persuade, I think lawyers may be more keenly aware than most that someone has to actually read your words and do so attentively if your writing is to achieve anything. It takes substantial work on the part of the writer to make that happen while ensuring that the writing remains sufficiently clear.

Most of my family are lawyers! My intuition is that the quality of writing in the texts that lawyers read is far higher than the average scientific paper, which is after all not valued for its prose, but for its findings. On the other hand, I get the feeling that in some jurisdictions the standard of evidence in courts is far lower than er... than what it's supposed to be in the sciences (but it really isn't). Anyway for me it makes sense that more persuasive language is used in your occupation than in mine.

It's not that researchers don't need to structure arguments carefully, it's just that we got formulae and experiments and formal proofs, so we don't really need to argue so much. In any case, most people start reading a paper by looking for the figures...

I should say that I spent my childhood thinking I would grow up to be a professional writer. I kind of did, I just didn't think I'd be writing research papers. The errors of imprecision I committed in my rejected papers (mentioned in my OP above) were the result of my habbit of thinking about writing in the way that a creative writer thinks, where the goal is beauty, not precision. I really saw a huge difference in the way my papers were received when I corrected for that. I went from having my papers rejected with angry notes, to being complimented for their clarity and my first published paper even got a Best Student Paper award. The change I made was literally just consistent use of terminology. It was like throwing a switch! I was so surprised. Hence my disagreement with McCarthy on that one particular point.

I think his other points are fair, btw.

Well, boring IS a flaw in technical writing. I didn't read the rest of your comment, but I can see how your papers are confusing ... ;-)

Agreed, if folks don’t finish reading the paper you can’t very well claim to have made the desired impact.

Grading theses, this is a very common trap. Students believe they have to be creative, change it up and use a Thesaurus. Because that is in fact what everyone is taught in school!

Yet, technical writing doesn't work that way. Synonyms are almost always wrong. We have the luxury of precision, where most often one term means one concept or thing. A 1:1 mapping with little ambiguity. Deviating from that is almost always the wrong decision.

Also notice the style I am writing this comment in. Short, concise, to-the-point sentences. Sparing use of filler words (thus, however, ...). I wish all technical writing was more like that (and I find that good technical writing either is, or is on such a high level that they can get away with longer sentences). I believe it a boon: you get a style of "Statement. Statement. Idea. Question. Idea. Statement. Solution. Conclusion.", if that makes sense, allowing easier mental access and partitioning. Technical topics are hard, and writing should accommodate the reader, making it as easy as possible.

There is a lot here I agree with. But:

> We have the luxury of precision, where most often one term means one concept or thing. A 1:1 mapping with little ambiguity. Deviating from that is almost always the wrong decision.

This is true of some words in a piece of technical writing, but not most of them. Don't allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that every word in your paper has a single clear meaning. At the same time, you're right that a writer shouldn't reach too far to find synonyms just to mix things up.

> Short, concise, to-the-point sentences. Sparing use of filler words (thus, however, ...).

"Thus" and "however" are not just filler words! Yes, they may be overused. But they also signal the conceptual relationship between one thought and the one that follows it in a clear way, at the beginning of the sentence. This allows the reader to understand how a sentence relates to the previous one before they have fully parsed and understood it.

Yes! My intuition about writing is that technical writing should leave every reader with the same understanding of the same ides, whereas creative writing should leave each reader with different emotions, images, thoughts- the ones in the reader themself. My favourite example- H. P. Lovecraft's vague descriptions of Mythos horrors, that contrive to be genuinely disturbing because they leave all the work to the reader's imagination. For me, that's good creative writing technique: allude, evoke, suggest, don't ever, ever show or tell directly. Exactly the opposite of what should go into a thesis, say (like the one I'm writing currently...)!

For context, McCarthy has been at the Santa Fe Institute since 2014 [1], and so in residence among accomplished scientists conducting serious research. For nearly a decade, McCarthy's day job has been writer among scientists.

Which is to say, McCarthy doesn't merely have an opinion. McCarthy has an informed opinion. He's spent more time among better scientists than most people in the sciences. And of course, he's a better writer than just about anyone giving advice about science writing (and writing in general).

Most writing advice targets poor writers. McCarthy essay targets good writers. Maybe because good writers are good not just for technique but for having interesting things to say. Maybe because something not worth writing in an engaging way probably isn't worth writing.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Fe_Institute

Yes, yes, I get it. Who am I to challegne an authority in scientific writing, that has so many scientist friends to boot. And what do I know about writing anyway, I don't even have a single best-seller under my belt.

Clearly, challenging authorities is not the way of a true scientist.

Seriously! Reminds me of the famous story of an undergrad who used a text by Richard Feynman as a source for a college paper, and was graded down by her professor. She then contacted Feynman to obtain justification, but Feynman replied:

"Your instructor was right not to give you any points, for your answer was wrong, as he demonstrated using Gauss’ law. You should, in science, believe logic and arguments, carefully drawn, and not authorities."


Though I see your point (that it's good practice to assess logical arguments independent of an author's credentials), brudgers's comment was still quite useful.

I skimmed the comments before deciding to reading the article, and likely would have skipped on this submission if I didn't know about his work at Santa Fe (which was also mentioned in the article itself), as I associate McCarthy with his literary work. I had no previous awareness he has been working with scientists on technical writing.

My point is that McCarthy has an expert opinion and is writing for people who are not struggling toward a first scientific journal publication.

The advice that makes a poor writer acceptable differs from what makes a good writer better.

>> My point is that McCarthy has an expert opinion and is writing for people who are not struggling toward a first scientific journal publication.

I don't understand what you mean. Do you mean that in the context of the article? Are you saying that the article above is aimed at people with some experience of writing?

By the way, your original comment came across as a haughty attempt at a put-down by an appeal to authority, hence my reaction to it. My apologies if I misunderstood your intent.

Yes, that's what he's saying. Scientists at the Santa Fe Institute tend already to have been published, since that's how you get to be a scientist at SFI.

I didn't read their original comment as a put-down of any sort, for whatever that's worth to you. If you jump into an article like this just getting to the tips (a reasonable thing to do!) you might miss the fact that McCarthy has the expertise to back up what he's saying (and, for that matter, miss the audience of his tips, as you might have).

And now you're assuming I didn't read the article. Well done. I've read it, twice, once yesterday and once when it was posted on HN previously a while ago, when I made the same comment about that particular suggestion at the top of the thread.

And you're trying to pull rank via proxy on me. I have the expertise to back up what I'm saying also. See my comment at the top.

There's nothing personal about any of this. I don't even know who you are. But: your "rank" here is that you've taken a course in academic writing and gotten some journal articles accepted, and McCarthy's "rank" is that he's one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years and is in a kind of residency copyediting papers for the Santa Fe Institute. I'd take him seriously. But you do you.

No, no, you misunderstand me. I don't assign any "rank" to myself. You are trying to pull rank on me by proxy, because you do not have any expertise in this matter (you 're not a researcher and you don't publish papers, correct?) and so you're trying to make up for that with an invocation of someone you think I must absolutely agree is an authority not to be disagreed with.

What I'm saying is that I do have relevant expertise because publishing papers is my job, and because I know that doing what McCarthy suggests in my quote above is the opposite of what got my papers published.

You're just trying to shut down the conversation by summoning what you think is a higher power. That doesn't work with people like me, who are expected to take down authorities without fear of browbeating by said authorities or their volunteer cheerleaders, as part of our job. You might as well let me know that Beyoncé disagrees with me, for all the good it will do to remind me that McCarthy is a Best Seller-ist. Who works for the Santa Fe Institute.

Sorry, I felt I had to expound on that because I find it very interesting when it happens.

I can give you the honest accounting of my thought process, since it seems to be of interest to you:

I read your root comment about McCarthy being wrong about repeating words in academic writing. I thought to myself, "this is exactly the sort of dismissal we tend to traffic in here, the assumption that we're subject matter experts on research and STEM and that a writer wouldn't be". I figured a bunch of people on HN would be instantly persuaded by the fact that your comment attests to experience in academic writing, especially since so few of them will closely read the article itself, which notes McCarthy's unexpectedly deep experience with hard science academic writing.

Then I thought to myself, "you know what? Cormac McCarthy is pretty universally considered one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years, so it is probably pretty safe to suggest that his writing advice not be dismissed easily, even by someone with their own deep experience with academic writing". That is to say: it's no great put-down to suggest that someone's own writing experience might be subordinate to that of... Cormac freaking McCarthy. :)

There's nothing especially interesting about "taking down authorities" on HN --- it's the air we breathe here. I do it too, all the time. By the same token: pushing back on that instinct seems totally within the bounds of our discussions as well.

So, long story short: I thought your comment was a bit facile and dismissive, and said why (or: almost did, but deleted my comment when I saw 'brudgers better one, then cosigned theirs).

Hope that helps.

Thank you for the honest explanation, but you can see that brudgers comment was a -- self-confessed -- put-down. My mistake was replying to it in the first place. I guess I dragged you into it, I think we would have a more productive discussion otherwise as I had with others in this thread (mostly disagreeing with them!).

I haven't read anything by McCarthy and I'm always suspicious of Best Seller authors. Anyway I have very non-mainstream views on creative writing. But that's another matter.

You should read Blood Meridian.

Thanks for the recommendation. It doesn't look like my style of book but wikipedia says it's highly acclaimed so I understand why you say he's a great writer.

Arguments from authority are useful, valid, and important as the basis for science…we don’t spend our time arguing about the heliocentric model, the periodic table, and Newtonian physics because of them.

Appeals to authority are fallacious when the authority has expertise in a field other than that in question: McCarthy’s authority on writing, doesn’t lend weight to his opinions on skateboarding, animal husbandry, and nutrition.

One of the most common self serving fallacious uses of authority is I-have-a-PhD.

Here the PhD-fallacy wasn’t this-is-what-works-for-me. It was McCarthy is wrong followed with a bunch of noise over scientific method instead of listening and learning.

My initial comment was performative erudition (HN’s sine qua non) to place a top comment’s sophomoric exposition in context…so yes, I didn’t think much of the comment. But with the bar on the ground, I didn’t expect the follow up to go under it.

There’s no need to apologize.

Ah, so I'm right- your comment was 100% a put-down, aimed at shaming me for not having the illustrious career of McCarthy's friends?

In that case, you are absolutely right that I have no need to apologise. But perhaps you should think about where you place "the bar" next time, in your comments, rather than trying to blame me, for being frustrated at your sarcasm.

I agree about consistent terminology, but I don't agree with your view that it is a virtue for technical writing to be boring.

Explaining and clarifying are not in conflict with being interesting, except in a few marginal cases like this one. And repetition of terminology is not inherently boring—the guy who wrote "κομόωντας Ἀχαιοὺς" 26 times and "γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη" 32 times would certainly dissent from that, and the Tipitaka or any Beatles song is far more repetitive still—it's just that terminological variation is one possible way to add interest. A bad one, in this context.

When I read scientific papers from a hundred years ago, before the institution of peer review, I'm constantly struck by how much better written they are than current papers. They talk about things that surprised them and disappointments that happened during the experiment, and their choice of words is much more lyrical and even metaphorical than the current literature. Consequently they are much clearer and explain much better. The universal complaint about the modern literature is that nobody reads it, even when they cite it, and that is only a slight exaggeration; one reason for this is that reading it is so painful, so people devote less time to it than they would were it more pleasant.

So, I agree with you that current academic writing norms prohibit publishing well-written, interesting prose; where we differ is that I think that is bad.

For context, my experience publishing peer-reviewed research is not quite zero, but you have much more than I do. I haven't read your papers yet (though they look interesting), so I'm not attacking your papers as dull or badly written. It's possible I've read more research than you have just as a result of being much older.

On the other hand, it's also true that many of those old papers included fatal ambiguities which the modern process would have weeded out. Still, we can have good-quality, interesting writing without ambiguity.

>> I agree about consistent terminology, but I don't agree with your view that it is a virtue for technical writing to be boring.

I don't agree either, I think it's _not a flaw_, not a virtue! Anyway, all I talk about is the _writing style_, not the content of a scientific paper. That's a different thing. But you can't really teach how to make exciting research contributions.

I agree also that repetition is not a flaw in and of itself. Minimalism is a thing, after all.

As to older papers, I kind of agree that they are often more pleasant to read, but the problem is that the more people work on a subject, the more new, subtle aspects of the subject become apparent that have to be made clear in writing.

Also, this is very unfortunate but terms can become overloaded with time as people use them in different ways. Sometimes I read older papers that seem to take some term for granted, but I find myself being utterly confused about what, exactly, they mean, among many different meanings of the term. For example, some of the reviewers I note above were frustrated with my work complained about my use of the word "predicate", which I was certain at the time can't be misunderstood... but is in fact used in different ways by different communities.

Thanks for the interest in my work. My second Machine Learning Journal paper is the much better written one, although it's rather a bit thick with formalisms and proofs etc. and won't be easy to read without a background in logic programming.

Well, I at least agree that being boring is not a fatal flaw in technical writing, where it would be in a novel. So I suppose we don't disagree as much as it seemed at first.

I've also run into the same terminological overloading problem. In CS it's especially bad; papers from the 01980s would be already difficult to read for someone who'd only read the recent literature. The worst is when the different meanings are almost, but not quite, the same. For example, I was reading one of Steinmetz's first papers from the 01890s, and he uses the term "inductance" where now we would use "inductive reactance"; at a given frequency these quantities are proportional but the second one varies by frequency.

My knowledge of logic programming is not literally zero in that I've written Prolog code a few times and ported μKanren to OCaml in order to understand it, but it's also far from a deep understanding. Still, I'm optimistic about my ability to understand things.

> "don’t use the same word repeatedly" is the worst possible advice to give

Agreed, this is often described as the error of "Said Bookism"

> People are so used to the word "said" that they can mentally skip over it when reading; when the word changes over and over again, it becomes a distraction.


Have you read anything by McCarthy? His writing style is as far from "Said Bookism" as you can come.

Yes, and recently. His technique is more to Find/replace "he said" with "".

Your question has no point though, the advice was given as per grandparent comment; and it is not great advice as per several replies.

Anonymous wiki posters vs best-selling author. Hmmm.

a) Although the "Anonymous wiki" authors are a good reference for the trope of Said bookism", they did not originate it. You can also find it in the Turkey City Lexicon from 1988 (1) and no doubt other earlier sources. In that document, see also "“Burly Detective” Syndrome"

b) I marvel at Mr McCarthy's prose. it breaks all the rules, and is sometimes impenetrable, sometimes so direct. It's fantastic, it's hard work. I couldn't do that well; very few could. There are far easier ways to get to "best seller".


>This is the worst possible advice to give about technical writing! What you should absolutely do if you want your readers to know what you're talking about is a) define your terminology before you use it and b) stick to the terminology you defined throughout the entire paper. Don't call a thing "red noppertock" the first time you mention it and then "crimson nopper with a tock" the next time. Call the same object, the same concept, the same method by the same name, always. Otherwise, you will only create confusion and make your reader tired and impatient.

What you are saying and what McCarthy is saying can both be true.

Using the same word repeatedly is boring, technical writing or not.

If you find yourself using the same word repeatedly, don't - as you seem to be assuming McCarthy is suggesting - pluck an alternate word out of a thesaurus; rather, take a step back and rethink if there is a different way to express your idea without using the word at all, or by using it less frequently.

"Using the same word repeatedly is boring, technical writing or not." -- A technical or scientific paper does not need to be entertaining. I mean, it can be, but it adds zero to the value of the discovery made or methods developed. I know it is intriguing to think in terms of "fun", "creativity", "entertainment", but the scientific or technical paper needs to be as clear as possible, which is more often than not in contrast with a desire to make a paper "engaging". Nobody cares if a surgical operation is "entertaining".

I don't remember having thought, when reading a paper, that it was boring, or "not fun", but I remember many times to have thought, "man, I have no clue what's going on here", "so many unnecessary details".

Nowhere did I say that clarity ought to be compromised. You seem to believe there's a tradeoff where I see none. If a paper is clear and also easy to read, entertaining or otherwise not boring, it stands to reason that it will be more readily comprehended, remembered and shared by the reader.

When you talk about "soft science" paper, maybe (because the content does not stand on its own), but no "hard science" paper has been remembered or noticed for the creative and original writing.

I am not speaking from a a position of any authority, but I have worked as a scientist in academia for 15 years and neither nor any of my many colleagues has ever remembered or noticed a paper for its flair. I notice papers that are brilliant, wrong, novel, impressive, not any particularly creative writing. Boring? You typically need to read a paper 10+ times to understand it, after the first read nobody outside the non-professional (who read papers like they are "investigations") cares about any ornate or rich language.

I think you may be misinterpreting him. Didn't he say don't re-use words in the context of unnecessary jargon and buzzwords, as it gets boring reading the same superfluous words?

I was surprised to learn how much more this is considered a mark of good writing in English than in other languages. Because English has a larger vocabulary with cognates from both Germanic and Romance languages it’s much easier to vary the words used. In Spanish writing it’s much more acceptable and common to repeat the same word sentence to sentence.

any time I use the same word twice in any sentence, I always rewrite it to avoid any repetition

Boring makes for poor comprehension, though.

i agree with you here. technical paper/writing is "boring" for a reason.

Somewhat tangential, but McCarthy is publishing two new novels (after a 16 year break): https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/08/books/cormac-mccarthy-new....

So exciting. I cant wait. I love how he is willing to explore new genres. These books are going to be really interesting.

Oh, that's such good news. Thanks!

Punctuation is our best defense against the peculiar ambiguities of the English language. Cormac McCarthy's abhorrence to using punctuation is the worst facet of his writing, and made the dialog in `Blood Meridian` practically unfollowable.

I kindly urge writers to use his subjective opinion here as an argument FOR rather than against the precision application of punctuation!

Cormac McCarthy's abhorrence to using punctuation is the worst facet of his writing, and made the dialog in `Blood Meridian` practically unfollowable.

No. His (lack of) use of punctuation in his work is mesmerising and beautiful, and part of what made Blood Meridian one of the greatest novels of the last century.

Obviously that technique is less likely to be constructive in science writing.

Agree. The lack of punctuation in Blood Meridian is an artistic decision and aids the flowing, biblical narration and the terrifying yet beautiful aesthetic of the novel. It's intended to be trance-like, feverish and flowing, and I think the lack of punctuation aids in this. Blood Meridian reads like a terrifying, beautiful nightmare, rooted in fact and history, and the writing style is perfect IMO.

The description of the Commanche attack near the beginning of the novel, where they suddenly appear out of nowhere and attack the soldiers has an amazing run-on sentence: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/328033-a-legion-of-horrible...

I likewise agree. When I read both Melville and McCarthy, I'll often find myself mid-run-on-sentence and think to myself, "welp, he's gone too far this time" only to find, by golly, they pull it off in the end. What would otherwise be complete pretension and chaos is, when wrought by true literature artists, simply breathtaking. There are times when I'm reading McCarthy and I literally, out loud, utter "Lord have mercy" for the beauty/fullness/meaning that man can lay upon us.

He’s probably my favorite author. Full tangent, but anyone who likes western novels should also check out Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry) and Paradise Sky (Joe Lansdale). Both are extremely moving and beautiful stories about the Wild West.

This quote from Blood Meridian is one of my favorite in all of literature and I think capture McCarthy's magic. He has such great talent to describe simultaneously with vivid details yet inexact clarity/meaning.

> It was the judge and the imbecile. They were both of them naked and they neared through the desert dawn like beings of a mode little more than tangential to the world at large, their figures now quick with clarity and now fugitive in the strangeness of that same light. Like things so charged with meaning that their forms are dimmed.

McCarthy was my gateway to McMurtry and it was McMurtry who hooked me on Texas…McCarthy is from Knoxville after all so his Texas is as an outsider who never risks killing Pecos Bill by design and Blood Meridian wanders into the further west beyond El Paso.

Anyway, I am on another McMurtry kick since the new year that began rereading Texasville and then a first reading of Custer…For me, McMurtry is a triple threat of fiction, nonfiction, and essays: I enjoy everything he wrote.

`Blood Meridian` is a great novel in spite of, not because of his lack of punctuation.

Do you not see the irony in his own use of four commas and a colon while telling us to minimize our punctuation use in this article?

> 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.

Perhaps he merely considered the "Oxford comma" unnecessary!

"The following are more of McCarthy’s words of wisdom, as told by Savage and Yeh."

Mea culpa!

I focused on reading "Cormac McCarthy's tips" and missed that they'd been regurgitated by others. Sort of diminishes the whole point of reading it!

Thank you!

Don't you think he does too, and is winking at you with that sentence? Especially given the spare "Remove extra words or commas whenever you can."

Someone made a plot of just the punctuations from Blood Meridian: https://medium.com/@neuroecology/punctuation-in-novels-8f316...

Nice. Reminds me of 'Code Signatures':


When I read The Road I found the lack of punctuation distracting rather than mesmerizing. I was using an e-reader and my initial thought was, "Is this right? Maybe they OCRed this and only glanced at the output." I had heard that the book was good from a few different sources, but none mentioned the unusual style. I Googled it to find out that this was, in fact, how it was supposed to be, and continued.

I am used to reading text with punctuation marks. When I enjoy a book, I forget that I am reading words on a page, and it feels like I'm seeing the story play out in my mind. The syntax of The Road constantly took me out of that feeling. It served only to remind me that I was reading a book by a dude who thinks adhering to the conventions of written English is beneath him.

The book was fine. I would have liked it a little more if it was punctuated normally, but of course, different strokes for different folks.

I would compare it to adjective order. You might say that the Goodyear Blimp is a big old blue polyester balloon. Never that it's a polyester old blue big balloon. It sounds wrong the second way. If I were a novelist searching for a gimmick, I could intentionally disregard standard adjective order and arrange the adjectives in another order every time I described something. It would give my writing a unique flavor. But it wouldn't make me any more descriptive, just annoying to read, because every time you hit a description your brain would throw an exception and then catch it going "oh, he's doing this again..."

Technical writing has swayed too much in the direction of over relying on punctuation, rather than writing good simple sentences. Trying to read a scientific paper is now a chore because of all the footnotes, parentheses, definitions and abbreviations, dashes and subclauses. They read more like legal documents than something you can actually read from start to end to understand a point.

Where does he advocate his novel writing style for science writing? His use, or rather lack thereof, of punctuation in his fiction writing is an artistic choice. As far as I know, Cormac McCarthy is the only writer who is a member of the Santa Fe Institute, so apparently the scientists there appreciate his perspectives.

I think your odd use of the exclamation mark is a great counter-example to your comment! After a long sentence with zero commas, here we have a punctuation mark! It doesn't exclaim, as in "Watch Out!" or "This is amazing!"! It's a questionable choice, it makes the reader think: why is this here? Is this writer casually throwing out punctuation that isn't needed?

That cognitive interruption, which I've kindly added multiple times to my first paragraph, is precisely what McCarthy says not to do in the very first bullet point of the article:

"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."

Is English your first language? Have you read Cormac McCarthy?

Neither McCarthy nor anyone else in this conversation is referring to the punctuation at the end of a sentence.

And, for the record, I was exclaiming that the takeaway is exactly the opposite of what the author suggests. That is, in fact, the precise meaning of an exclamation point.

I've kindly included some actual cognitive interruptions for you, to aid in your understanding of this discussion.

Now I am wondering is italics a substitute for ‘“…”’?

I don't know, I think the exclamation mark above changes the tone of the paragraph from being a snarky comment to something less aggressive...

The first time I read Blood Meridian, I didn’t notice the absence of quotation punctuation for some pages. And then my thought was “that’s kinda interesting” and completely forgot about it.

Until, after giving my copy to my brother, he had the same response as you. At the time, twenty five years ago, I was surprised but now I accept everything isn’t for everyone and hence all books are not for all readers.

My brother and I had different reading experiences and developed different tastes. I couldn’t get through the Carl Hiassen paperback I got in exchange. There wasn’t anything I cared about there.

“Properly punctuated” is not a blurb to captivate my attention. YMMV.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves would be a great line in BM


I don't really remember him abhorring punctuation. In fact I remember most of the novel being short sentences something like 3-10 words long. I found it very easy to follow.

I would have echoed your criticism after the first read but I was able to try again and really get into the flow and it’s a great work in part because of the lack of punctuation

Likewise, I would urge anyone reading this comment to view it as a prime example of why HN posters’ opinions on fiction (or any art) should be taken with a grain of salt.

I disagree with the advice on not using transition words such as 'however'. These can be a useful signpost that e.g. the approach described in the previous sentence has a drawback and/or to build tension when describing a problem. Or maybe I'm just not a good enough writer to do it in some other way...

Words like however and similar are often useful in the introduction of a paper to expose the context, current state of the art, and problem that your research is attacking. I'm in engineering though, so most research and papers follow the theme of "there exists this problem, current solutions are this and this, however they are not ideal because X, therefore we present this novel solution which is really great".

Yes exactly the kind of structure I'm talking about.

therefore we present this novel solution which is really great...however we didn't take any of these things into consideration, so it might not be.

People can always tell when someone is about to say "however".

Might as well fulfill the expectation.

I agree with your sentiment, however the author suggested minimizing. Not eliminating.

If you can split it into two separate, simpler sentences, it's usually easier for me to read. I appreciate clarity in academic writing much more than I appreciate any dramatic flourishes the author may attempt to make.

I'm not saying you can't split the sentence into two, just that e.g. the second sentence might start 'However,...' to emphasize the contrast with the preceding sentence.

I read science papers to learn. Concise prose presented in a logical order is the best for this. Transition words often add unnecessary subjectivity and filler.

The subjectivity is be important to make the uncertainties clear. Papers and research results aren't always clear and objective. We did a thing, however it might not have been the best approach. We got some results which might be relevant, however there are these confounding factors that might mean they aren't. At the end of the project we realised that we probably should have started with doing X, however we didn't and I don't know if it would have made a difference or not.

If you want information presented in a clear, unambiguous and logical order, it's best to wait for the textbook.

Side note but I am so excited for his new books later this year. It's been so long since he wrote a new book, and statistically these are almost certain to be his final novels given his age (88).

I found the prose of Blood Meridian and The Road absolutely extraordinary, so I'm eager for more of it. I haven't read his other past novels yet, don't ask why. Maybe because I saw the movie of No Country For Old Men, and I wasn't sure if the horses trilogy would interest me.

Don't forget to give a watch to The Counselor. It had dreadful reviews because as a movie it's a total failure. But taken as a Cormac Mccarthy novel narrated by skilled actors and visually imagined by Ridley Scott it's a success, in my opinion.

Love The Counselor. The screenplay was also published in book form and is worth reading with or without having seen the movie.

Highly recommend The Border Trilogy as well as No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers did a fantastic job adapting the latter, but it just can't compare to the book.

The economist Richard Thaler is quite good at writing papers that don't make you want to off yourself.

Are there any other examples of good academic writing?

You are really onto something here. I am in plain-old mechanical engineering. As a student, for the first years, I was simply intimidated. "These papers are so hard to read!". You have to read between the lines so much, fill in so many gaps, correct so many mental and grammatical knots.

10 years later and 2 years into a PhD, I think I am ready to admit that most papers are terrible. Most people are not native speakers. It makes a huge difference. Filler words, synonyms, long sentences, grammar errors... the list goes on. The only thing not on it are typos, because those are caught by software and are an easy fix. The rest takes genuine work and effort.

Papers are so hard to read, they can be headache-inducing and I am often completely exhausted from them.

And that's only touching on the stylistic part. Nowadays, everything is either all code or (strongly) relies on it (experimental work still needs collecting, evaluation, plotting, ...). But good luck finding actual, published source code (and if it's public, the sad-but-true adage of horrific academic coding takes effect). Methods are obscured and unclear. Sometimes, people can't even cite a single source properly almost verbatim -- fundamental reading comprehension seems to be lacking. Often, private data is used in private or public but unusable code, making papers entirely irreproducible. It's mental and frustrating. Coming across good papers in between the cruft really stands out, but happens at a low rate (10-20%?).

Simon Peyton Jones's papers are really clear and understandable. He actually did a talk on how to write papers: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/academic-program/wr...

His writing is extremely clear and worthy of emulation, but his presentations are always in Comic Sans.

Most papers from before the 80s or so IME. After that, it seems like scientific papers became similar to patents: not written to elucidate, but to obscure and waste the time of readers. Readers are the competition in a big rat race, after all.

I find, in general, that philosophy tends to have the best overall quality of writing in academic writing. There are still examples of bad writing, but when it's good, the writing is crystal clear and a joy to read.

I found the 'Hallmarks of Cancer' papers by Weinberg and Vogelstein to be very well written. While those are reviews, their research articles are well written as well.

cool will check it out usually good academic writing is an oxymoron

Given that attitude, your mileage may vary with these suggestions.

I utilize primary research all day every day for my job and my definition of good academic writing is clear, concise writing that enables me to answer the specific questions I am seeking to answers for quickly and in a manner that allows me to confidently cite the work (assuming the relevant information is present within the manuscript).

For further reading, this list [0] of resources on how to write scientific articles includes notably this excellent set of slides [1]. The author notably presents full fledge examples of rewritten sentences and paragraphs that are enlightening.

[0]: https://people.csail.mit.edu/fredo/student.html

[1]: http://www.principiae.be/pdfs/UGent-X-003-slideshow.pdf

> 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.

This sounds reasonable for technical writing, though it's interesting to read McCarthy's recommendation after considering David Foster Wallace's work, where there is a very frequent usage of footnotes.

In his non-fictional essays essays—often in the role of a reporter like in his well-known "Consider the Lobster" for Gourmet magazine [0]—Wallace uses extensive footnotes. This isn't technical writing, though the quality of Wallace's convinced me that footnotes can have a useful place in fictional writing.

> 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.

From Hacker News discussions (and also speaking to a colleague who competed at a high level on a debate team in high school), I learned the opposite lesson. If there is a weakness in an argument, it's likely it will be pointed out. I've found it important to consider weaknesses in logic and try to anticipate counter-arguments whenever possible, when writing for readers from more technical problems.

[0] [PDF] http://www.columbia.edu/~col8/lobsterarticle.pdf

I think the footnotes emphasize the meandering and exhaustive aspects of his informationally dense style of writing. I think its a stylistic choice which emphasizes his unique voice.

I don't think hacker news is representative of the type of communication that papers communicate. A lot of times the communication on this website can default to adversarial, which I think is not the default for academic discourse. Plus I imagine there are other forums in academia aside from published studies (I think there are published discussion journals, and you also have blogs and such) that are suitable for that type of communication.

Wallace is deliberately breaking up the flow of thoughts, though.

Lacking footnotes slows the reader down with distacting asides.

I am a big fan of McCarhty's and I think Blood Meridian is absolutely transcendent.

The advice in this article seems apt if you are writing a 'great' paper, in the sense of 'going to be a classic in your field.' But it doesn't seem like very good advice for writing a 'good' paper, meaning one that advances the state of knowledge in one particular direction.

True classics in the fields I know best (political science and economics) tend to be written very memorably, meaning the author's perspective is obvious. But not everyone is Gary Becker [0] or Kenneth Waltz [1], and if everyone tried to write like them, we'd have a lot less dialogue between papers -- a lot of the stuff people find boring in academic research is authors' trying very hard to situate their contributions within the broader literature -- and more people trying to strike out as stylistically distinct iconoclasts.

Another comment here [2] makes this point well about the repetition of words. Repeating a technical term might make for a boring read, and if you are writing a paper that's going to revolutionize your field, perhaps you don't need to repeat yourself much because your main point can (should?) be made in a few different of ways. But if you're writing a typical science paper, which makes a narrow point about a new finding, then yes, you should repeat yourself as much as you need to create precise buttressing around that new finding.

[0] https://www.jstor.org/stable/1807222

[1] https://direct.mit.edu/isec/article-abstract/18/2/44/11449/T...

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=30616522

> Avoid placing equations in the middle of sentences

This is strange advice.

In many fields, following this suggestion can make it harder for the reader to understand the message.

Why is "Avoid placing equations in the middle of sentences" strange advice?

Some equations can be incredibly simple, and explained as a part of text. I'm sure Cormac McCarthy is speaking about some abstract proof that would jolt the reader no matter what. But "Writing quality is a product of clarity and simplicity, (q = c*s)" doesn't have to be the high crime McCarthy claims.

I like the notes on Knuth lecture “Mathematical Writing” https://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/reviewing-papers/knuth_mathematic...

I vastly prefer Larry McEnerney’s lecture The Craft of Writing Effectively:


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