Novelist Cormac McCarthy has edited the work of many scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. A couple of them distilled McCarthy’s advice into a list, published here by Nature. Much of this list is straightforward, so here are a few standouts that may make you say, “But I thought I was writing a science paper.”
- “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.
- “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.
- “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. “
This third point is advice many writers need to consider: give an editor time to work with you. When a writer hires an editor to clean up his work and asks for it returning as soon as possible or a week earlier than normal, he is asking his editor to let things slide or focus on only on essentials. With time an editor can highlight a paragraph as confusing and ask the writer to rework it or point out other things that need work and have no set fixes.