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Cormac McCarthy & How to Write a Good Science Paper

A number of people have sent me the recent Nature column listing novelist and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper. Have you seen it?

McCarthy has provided (I was surprised to learn) “extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico” as well as other well known scientists. And, although there are a lot of them and they do tend to run together in the mind, many of the tips in the Nature piece are excellent. They are, after all, from Cormac McCarthy.

I was surprised by something else: the many times McCarthy advises scientists, either explicitly or implicitly, to enjoy writing. “Just enjoy it” is not a phrase I’ve ever heard in a science writing workshop. If it made someone’s list of 200 top tips for great scientific writing, it would be 199th, beating out perhaps only “Sign your name.”

What constitutes “just enjoy it” for McCarthy? As far as I can tell, saying “yes” to

  • Picking a theme and a couple points and sticking to them;
  • Cutting out everything else that doesn’t support those elements;
  • Being comfortable with raising questions that you never answer;
  • Using a personal tone and colloquial, concrete language and examples;
  • Editing help from someone who knows what they’re doing; and
  • Writing something that pleases you and that has a chance to inspire others as you yourself were once inspired by papers to become a scientist.

and saying “no” to

  • Qualifying things to death and worrying about everyone’s potential reaction;
  • Formality and blind adherence to grammatical rules at the expense of being understood;
  • Anything that might bore a reader.

Very good lists. Trying to implement them might improve your writing. Unfortunately, they won’t enhance your enjoyment of writing very much.

Enjoyment comes from being in the flow, from diving into the process and getting to a point of some competence, if not mastery, in which you lose yourself. And writing is not amenable to flow. Achieving flow is especially hard when you’re facing a deadline and negotiating which points to cut to meet a tight word count while wrangling multiple authors.

I think we all love lists like these, and sentiments like “Just enjoy it,” because they sound very much like common sense rules for a good life. We want to believe that it’s that simple — that the true paths to all good things converge, and at the end of the trail is a clear conscience and a warm bed and publication on the cover of Science. (Not, it must be said, a very Cormac McCarthy storyline.)

You usually find flow when you’re further into the writing process — when it’s coming together. But to get there, you have to get through a valley of death with your first draft. Anne Lamont calls this ”the shitty first draft” — the draft so bad that you obsess about getting killed by a car before you can revise it, worried that, as Lamont says, “people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.”

The first draft, Lamott adds, is the down draft — get it down on paper. The second is the up draft: fix it up. The third is the dental draft, where you check every tooth to see if any of them are loose or still need root canals.

This is the best piece of writing advice a perfectionist such as myself (and like many researchers) could ever hear.

Also, as McCarthy advises: “Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work.” Well, so maybe you don’t know Cormac McCarthy. But I know you can find one of the thousands of other lesser-sung but no less competent science editors who would be delighted to work with you. That would accelerate the fixing-up process. (Here’s what to look for in an editor.)

And here’s what I’d dare add to McCarthy’s tips: Write a lot, revise even more, read even more than that, and understand your audience and what you want to tell them. And when flow or — God help you, enjoyment — decides to show up, just keep your fingers or pen moving, because (if not for Cormac McCarthy, then for most of us) its visits are distressingly brief.