Cormac McCarthy on how to write a scientific (or any kind of) paper

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/30/cormac-mccarthy-on-how-to-writ.html

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Just don’t cannibalize someone else’s work.

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Try to include at least one element in your writing so disturbing that your reader will not be able to sleep or even speak for days.

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Roger That!

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While I agree with every single one of his suggestions and have long tried to do the same in my own technical writing, if I ever had to read a scientific paper that was written in the style Cormac McCarthy uses in his novels I think I’d find a new career.
That said, I think I have an idea for a new parody scientific journal…

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His time would be equally well spent teaching his literary contemporaries how to achieve the maximum effect from free modifiers.

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The red balloon sat on the edge of the bed.

“I was always coming for your hypothesis,” it said. “You understand that, don’t you?”

The principle investigator nodded. Her breath caught. On her knee, her fingers trembled.

“But couldn’t you have—”

“No,” said the red balloon. " I could not have stayed away, any more than you can turn into a blue ballon and fly away. But I will do this for you; I will give you a moment to compose your thoughts, and then the results must be as they always have been."

Gah. I give up. I can’t get anything to work right today.

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Yeah, I was expecting this to be a @beschizza article.

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Already done…

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This goes well with a similar guideline:

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“If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it”

This is the main sticking point for me. This works less well for eperimental science data papers than anything other writing. Minimalism is clearly the best way to convey your main points, but data papers should include enough info such that if your idea is wrong someone else can construct a better one. Its more frustrating to read papers that explain their ideas but don’t give the details necessary to really evaluate them even if it does make it easier to understand their main theme

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Mimi Zeiger’s Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers is the best training I have had in scientific writing (which operates on a different logic than, say creative fiction, or rhetoric). She starts with word choice, then phrase construction, then clause construction, then sentence, paragraph, etc. Really solid. Anyone at UCSF who gets the chance should take her course, if she’s still teaching it there.

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FIFY.

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very glad Mr. McCarthy does not follow his technical writing advice in writing his own novels.

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If you’ve never read “Yelping with Cormac”, do so…

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Damn. That’s some kind of brilliant.

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Further studies are recommended to validate these findings in a larger sample what with us being not rightly sure if the conclusions would stand to a greater diversity of folk bloodborn on the crux of a cold and mindless anger.

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From the original draft of the introduction to “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” by Charles R Darwin.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

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Remove extra […] commas whenever you can.

What?! … What?!?

a) What is an “extra comma”?
b) Since when are commas bad?

Regarding a)
Is that about the Oxford” / “Harvard” comma? (water, bread, and kranch sauce)
Or just any comma that you can drop in principle such that it still allows the reader to understand the meaning. For example, the comma in this sentence.
I hope it’s not about this comma: “Let’s eat, Grandma!”

Regarding b)
Commas are there to help the reader understand the sentence. Just because there may be more and less ambiguous cases, doesn’t mean that one should go to the bare minimum. There might be readers that are more capable of understanding English writing and readers that have a harder time, which gain from punctuation as it adds structure. In summary, this seems very much biased to having an audience with English as first language, which is especially bad since it’s advice for scientific writing.

Also, let’s not forget: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/11/why-semicolons-are-lovely-and.html

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