Your paper — you hope — is for posterity.
October 2, 2019 11:39 AM   Subscribe

 
What if you got into a fight about punctuation with somebody on StackExchange or the Chicago Manual forum and their handle was TheKid and it turned out it was fucking Cormac McCarthy, thatd be wild
posted by Beardman at 12:13 PM on October 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


I've never read any Cormac McCarthy, but that all strikes me as very good writing advice.
posted by Alex404 at 12:18 PM on October 2, 2019


ABSTRACT: Below a frigid acid buzz of fluorescent ballasts in our workrooms we were prepared to wield cambrian chalk carved from sheer distant cliff faces and wrestle feverishly with the geometric properties of a hopelessly complex Minkowski space and outline its ramifications.
posted by tclark at 12:20 PM on October 2, 2019 [45 favorites]


I love McCarthy's descriptive passages but dislike his general misanthropy. He creates characters I'd rather not spend time with. McCarthy's idiosyncratic approach to punctuation (leaving most of it out) is cribbed from Joyce and Faulkner. That approach may have seemed novel and groundbreaking eighty years ago, but for me it gets tiresome. And unless you have a strong stomach and enjoy nasty characters, avoid "Child of God" like the plague!
posted by Agave at 12:23 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Van Savage, a theoretical biologist and ecologist

How could he not be edited by McCarthy with a DC Comics name like that?
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:34 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Imagine if academics cared about writing well for legibility. Keep jargon to the necessary minimum, write clear and simple sentences, have a section for intelligent non-experts explaining what the paper means. Right now there are precious few primary researchers who even care about writing more than for the minimum necessary for academic standing; we rely on journalists and pop scientists to communicate. We could do better.
posted by Nelson at 12:36 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Imagine if academics cared about writing well for legibility.

Ugh, we do. Like, a lot.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:38 PM on October 2, 2019 [23 favorites]


A lot of good advice. These ones leapt out especially for me.

-If possible, try to have an affiliation with an Ivy League school or, failing that, one of the better UCs. Editors simply do not have time to slog through the entire name of a big Midwestern state university.

-If the idea you are trying to convey is novel and likely to confuse your readers at first, revise your language until the idea seems more familiar and comfortable. Make a practice of this and eventually you will no longer need to have novel ideas in the first place.

-Before you start writing, decide on your paper's theme. No, not that theme. Not that one either. Oh my, you really are not very good at this, are you.

-When a reviewer responds negatively to your paper, it is frequently not due to poor science, but rather poor writing. I am available to punch up your material for a modest consultation fee.

posted by logicpunk at 12:53 PM on October 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


In my mind I can see one of those exchanges from All the Pretty Horses where they keep switching in and out of Spanish ("Esta compusto? wheezed the captain" or "Mande?") but as an exchange between two chemists discussing some properties of a new compound, but I'm just too lazy today to hack it together.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 12:56 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Imagine if academics cared about writing well for legibility.

Ugh, we do. Like, a lot.


Some of you really care, and some of you really don't. Academics of the second stripe toss their prose into the dumbwaiter and lower it down to the basement, where the unsung copy editors dwell. Luckily, we have a friend in Daddy Cormac, who keeps us company with tales of blood and mercy to pass our wretched hours.
posted by Beardman at 12:58 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


Don’t lean on semicolons as a crutch to join loosely linked ideas. This only encourages bad writing.

Amusingly, a semicolon would have worked fine right there.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:06 PM on October 2, 2019 [18 favorites]


I've never read any Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses. Lots of lovely writing, somewhat less violence than many of his books.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:13 PM on October 2, 2019


> Imagine if academics cared about writing well for legibility. Keep jargon to the necessary minimum, write clear and simple sentences, have a section for intelligent non-experts explaining what the paper means.

start your thought experiment with the disciplines of math and physics.

i mean i'm going to be i guess relatively laconic or whatever here but the thing you are missing is that sometimes complicated things are complicated and when writing about these complicated things there is no accessible version that actually conveys the significance (or sometimes, even the nature) of the work.

most of the time people understand this when the discipline is math and physics. however, this holds true for pretty much all academic fields. basically like for most fields of study x, there is no royal road to x such that one can understand x without hard work.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:20 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


basically like for most fields of study x, there is no royal road to x such that one can understand x without hard work.

Indeed. I'm still puzzling over your treatise on ballistic missiles.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:34 PM on October 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


Amusingly, a semicolon would have worked fine right there.

I think this was extremely deliberate, given that the same bullet point includes examples of the recommended dashes and parentheses.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:53 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I take issue with a number of comments here about academic/scientific writing.

So at least as far as scientific writing is concerned, pretty much every scientist I've ever met values good writing. Both in others, because reading well-written work is much more enjoyable, and in themselves, because writing well is one of the key skills that a scientist needs to succeed.

It's not like most scientists are actively trying to write in overly complex, jargon-filled sentences, it's just that it's actually quite a bit easier. Turning complex ideas into complex sentences is straightforward. It's making simple sentences out of them that's the trick.

This applies whether you're writing for your immediate field, or an audience without any specific expertise in your area. And there's always a way to explain what you're doing in accessible terms for the audience in question. This is the key to successful grant writing.
posted by Alex404 at 1:55 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


You know what I hate? I hate when they illustrate a book or an author's oeuvre with a picture from a movie based on one of their works. I hate that.

I also love Cormac McCarthy, & his prose style, and his nasty characters.

For people who are put off by his style, try listening to an audiobook, especially those read by Frank Muller () and Cities of the Plain.

Frank Muller could read EULAs or Tim LaHaye and it would still be fascinating.

Love this Cormac McCarthy writing tips article too. Hate that picture.
posted by chavenet at 2:43 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]




Oops. the other Frank Muller read is All The Pretty Horses
posted by chavenet at 2:58 PM on October 2, 2019


This is shit hot, thank you. McCarthy's prose is for the most part a little too stultifying for my tastes - though I did enjoy The Road and No Country, I couldn't make it very far into Blood Meridian - but this is just generally excellent writing advice, applicable to any field.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:01 PM on October 2, 2019


It's not like we don't know this. Here in government, we are required to turn in manuscripts with a technical abstract and an interpretive summary, and the interpretive summary is supposed to be intelligible to any Congressional Aide who has improbably asked to look at the science. The problem is that we're supposed to write our summary at a sixth grade level, and that's extremely difficult to do. We once had to go to a training session where we were told to "tell stories" using "and", not "except" or "unless" or "but". A scientist can almost never do this because the story we're telling is complicated, with lots of "buts", "howevers" or "possiblys". To simplify it to a ripping yarn is to disrespect the process we used to get the data.
posted by acrasis at 4:09 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


> Indeed. I'm still puzzling over your treatise on ballistic missiles.

okay fine i admit it: it’s about dicks. all of it. dicks dicks dicks.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:18 PM on October 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


start your thought experiment with the disciplines of math and physics.

First imagine a spherical Cormac McCarthy in a vacuum...
posted by JohnFromGR at 5:45 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


I don't... maybe I'm just too sleep-deprived and it's distorting my judgment even more than I realized, but this article and many of the responses to it here read like a prank to me, at least partially because the idea that it's real and necessary is making me sad. Like seriously I was reading the comments while I was still reading the article because I have ADHD and that's what I do sometimes (sorry), and after several bullet points of the real article I really wasn't sure if logicpunk's quotes there would turn out to be real or not. I thought maybe I was reading a slow burn satire until I got like halfway through and decided that no, this is all sincere, those were a joke.

IMO, this list of advice ranges in quality from "mildly useful to keep in mind while you're revising" at best to "this is actively bad advice unless you're already a talented writer and know how to apply this advice properly" at worst, with the bulk of it falling somewhere between "you should have internalized this in high school English and I'm not sure how you actually got into college without doing this already" and "you already should have internalized this by the time you reached the point in your career where you have a degree and are working on a piece for broad publication," with a scattering of "this barely even qualifies as advice."

In particular:

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.

This is bad advice for most people. In my experience, more people than not end up making their writing less clear when they try and make it more concise. This advice is difficult to apply to your own writing for nearly everyone, because when you're writing something, you already know what you mean. No talented editor does the primary editing of their own writing if they can help it. They know better than that. They get someone else to do it. Trying to do this ahead of time on your own is a great way to make more work for your editor as they have to ask you what the fuck you mean more frequently.

In my opinion. Other people who write and edit may well disagree with me, but I, in turn, disagree with them.
posted by Caduceus at 6:17 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


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.

So...:

To be clear, be concise. Is any meaning lost when you remove a punctuation mark, word, sentence, paragraph or section? If not, remove it.
posted by sylvanshine at 7:01 PM on October 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


Also a good point, sylvanshine. As demonstrated, what advice is actually given isn't that well-executed, either.
posted by Caduceus at 7:33 PM on October 2, 2019


Most of these I agreed with, but in practice things are always more complicated.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:41 PM on October 2, 2019


Honestly, I think most writing advice is largely unhelpful outside of the context of an actual piece of writing that you're working on that needs specific advice. The devil is always in the details, and it's more effective to see the impact of actual revisions and edits and feedback on the quality of your writing than it is to abstractly try and apply a list of bullet points, whether those bullet points are good advice or not.
posted by Caduceus at 7:46 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Derail, but if I’m interested in reading Cormac McCarthy, what’s a good place to start? Mrs. Freecell recently had a friend recommend Blood Meridian and she hated it, like really hated it. She tossed it away once, tried again, then just bagged it which she never does. She thought the violence was bs and felt like he was getting off on thinking of sadistic things to have the characters do ... I can handle more violence but there has to be an amazing story and some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. Is everything of his in a similar vein? People recommend the Road a lot.

Also, that’s good writing advice. We should turn it to legal writing first though. That’s where the needlessly incomprehensible stuff is.
posted by freecellwizard at 8:05 PM on October 2, 2019


> 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.

well but like what if you’ve developed this like idiosyncratic voice such that you like swerve back and forth between being really really formal and super informal, like if that’s the case isn’t the specific rhythm or whatever established through the allegedly superfluous words something worth preserving in and of itself without regard for whether those additional words convey any additional “meaning” in an abstract sense i guess what i’m trying to say here is is it possible that the materiality of language above and beyond its capacity as a thing that bears abstract meaning is in fact communicative and is it possible that there are things that can be conveyed in an expansive style — or even like an all-over-the-map densely referential quasi-conversational style — that are more or less inaccessible to people writing in a minimalist style? asking for a friend.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:13 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


“Avoid placing equations in the middle of sentences.”

Oh honey.

My advice: equations function as words or phrases in your sentence, so they should all be properly punctuated. Your main equations should indeed be separated from the text, but they are still clauses and should still be punctuated.

And for tiny in-line equations, you had best make sure that footnotes (which are incredibly awesome particularly in novels) do not occur right after the equation. I do not want to wonder if that is an x^2 or if footnote 2 just got a little too cozy with your x.
posted by nat at 1:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


We had a few lectures on academic writing for physics, and the lecturer told us: don't read science papers, read Jane Austen. I think the advice carries through. So much of any writing advice (correctly!) boils down to "listen to your writerly instinct" but then neglects to add the advice on developing that instinct.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 5:49 AM on October 3, 2019


This advice is difficult to apply to your own writing for nearly everyone, because when you're writing something, you already know what you mean.

yes, yes, christ almighty. the strunk-and-white school of slavish devotion to minimalism is a mean, bad cudgel to smash into your writing, whether it's technical or creative. (the "write like you talk" lines of advice McCarthy gives are better -- and contradictory in ways he doesn't seem to notice -- but noted above they're also not especially useful beyond the level of an undergraduate essay; it's the sort of advice I gave all the time when I worked at the writing center)

McCarthy himself is a good example -- the "minimalist" approach of nipping out all the goddamn punctuation makes his work significantly harder to read, not easier or more straightforward. one could certainly argue it's exactly that difficulty that makes it a notable/worthy companion to his grim work, but apparently he wouldn't argue that himself.
posted by Kybard at 5:52 AM on October 3, 2019


-If possible, try to have an affiliation with an Ivy League school or, failing that, one of the better UCs. Editors simply do not have time to slog through the entire name of a big Midwestern state university.

Shit. Why didn't I think of that?

That advice only makes sense if you know nothing about academia.

1) Nobody gets to pick their affiliation. That's not how jobs work in academia. That's not how jobs work anywhere. This advice only makes sense if you've never had a job.

2) In ecology (one of the fields that Santa Fe Institute contributes to), the only affiliations on that list that would make any sense to say this about are Cornell and Berkeley. Most Ivies don't even really have a reputation in ecology. They're just non-entities. In the real world of academia, individual programs matter a lot more than the name brand of the institution, and I wouldn't want to work with an editor who didn't know that. If pedigree matters at all (and I really fucking hope it doesn't to a good journal), a good editor would be much more impressed by an ecology paper from Arizona State or Michigan, even if those names seem long and difficult to McCarthy.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:52 AM on October 3, 2019


Nevermind. I guess I misunderstood a joke. I give up.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:53 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Shot the goddamn bear.
posted by thelonius at 10:20 AM on October 3, 2019


previously[1] :P

Derail, but if I’m interested in reading Cormac McCarthy, what’s a good place to start?

suttree is semi-autobiographical and, uh, revealing (perhaps)?
posted by kliuless at 3:56 AM on October 4, 2019


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