16 November 2019

Cormac McCarthy on academic writing

Cormac McCarthy in 1973. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81220614

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m not much of a fan of Cormac McCarthy. Not yet anyway, but I hold out hope. I’ve found it difficult to get into his novels but I do keep promising myself to return to them and try again. A few weeks ago he provided his advice in Nature° on how to write a great science paper”. And it’s damn good.

His most important tip is to keep it simple while telling a coherent, compelling story”. From the editor’s seat there is no doubt that a lot of people manage to turn academic writing into an exercise in drudgery. Worse, it often results in a paralysis when it comes to other writing. The habit of academic writing infects all that writing too and leeches it of passion and, where necessary, opinion. Writers conditioned by this style often seem to find it challenging to express any opinion.

One could argue that research writing itself doesn’t need to have that wow factor of readability. One might say, it serves a purpose, if it has to be a little dull in order to achieve the appropriate objectiveness then so be it. I’m not mandating anything other than the necessary accuracy to get across the message. It’s just that often the case the writing is a pompous notch or three above clarity. All too often academic authors, as Tim Albert suggests,° put on the posh overcoat.

Cormac McCarthy’s advice is actually quite generic. Most of it can be applied to any writing. Indeed, it should be applied to all writing. There is plenty in the article and I won’t regurgitate it. I thought his point to avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts…” was interesting. I’ve read a number of books recently that were riddled with them and I have become acutely aware of how much they disrupt the reading experience. And, of course, the best advice: Try to make life as easy as possible for your editing friends”. Though, to be fair, McCarthy has perhaps slipped slightly into his experience as a novelist as he writes about finding a good editor.


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