Is There Hope for Good Writing in the Sciences?

What first attracted me to this article entitled "Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose" was STEM - the bane of any English professor. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is the current trend in public education, pushing aside the arts for technology. But STEM should really be changed to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) because while some may believe that the Arts are just a supercilious area of study that no one really needs, that is just false. Rhetoric is taught in the Arts and everyone needs to know how to argue properly, especially scientists. If not, how are you ever going to prove your hypothesis or spot a fallacy in your problem?

So what does that have to to with Cormac McCarthy? McCarthy loves science and scientists. The writer of such novels as No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road has "Since the 1990s, maintained a desk at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific think tank, and has served as a volunteer copy-editor for several scientists, including Lisa Randall, Harvard’s first female tenured theoretical physicist, and physicist Geoffrey West, author of the popular science book Scale." It is people like McCarthy, West, and Randall that will, hopefully, get the Arts and Sciences to blend together as they should.

Here is some of McCarthy's writing advice:
  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity…. Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember…. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message.
  • Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct.
  • Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly—it’s boring.
  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant…. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section.
  • Choose concrete language and examples.
  • 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.
  • Finally, try to write the best version of your paper—the one that you like. You can’t please an anonymous reader, but you should be able to please yourself.
  • When you make your writing more lively and easier to understand, people will want to invest their time in reading your work.
If you were to choose one these rules on clear writing, which would it be? Why?


  1. Actually, I've read several books and series by scientists, who both manage a delightful blend of story engagement and scientific accuracy. My two favorite scientist authors are both physicists: David Brin and his novel "Earth" along with his series "Uplift" were fun reads for be growing up, and Michio Kaku has written plenty of short stories, of which my favorite collection has to be "Otherness". But overall, I do agree that there needs to be more crossover between the arts and the sciences - in both directions.

    To answer your question, I would choose the second to last one, because it's advice I have to give myself a lot when doing creative writing. For me, the most important part of my writing is being able to be happy with what I've written and what I want to write, because that makes the investment and effort and heart I put into it all worth it.

    -Kaeleigh Pickens

  2. It's hard to pick just one so I'll just lay out the two that stood out for me. First, write the best version of your paper. If you don't like what you have written thus far then it will show when reading. This may turn the reader away. Personally, I will if I sense that the writing isn't sounding right. Next, read your finished work aloud to one self or to a friend. There is a lot of grammar issues and ideas that will not sound right if one hears it aloud. These are the key rules on clear writing because both the writer and reader will have a clear reading experience and a grasp on what the reading or context is about.

    -- Cindy Orozco

  3. When talking about writing the best version of your paper its very easy to relate to because I think all people who write get worn out by writing. I can tell that many people may not revise enough and get the feeling they are done. Revising and making it the best you can will take time, but we all know when we have not spent enough time on a paper. So many times after writing and finishing a paper I always feel like it could be better. I don't think it really matter at all who is reading your paper, but you know when you really put your time into making it great something you can be proud of.

    ---Steve Roberts

  4. Casandra Ralleta
    The one rule I would chose is "Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember…. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it". This rule helps the author stay on track while writing. Ensuring all of the information presented relates to the topic already takes care of the other rules minimalism and over-elaboration. If everything relates to the main point the reader will easily get a sense of the author's purpose. Having only two or three points allows the reader to gain something from the author's writing.

  5. While most of these rules jumped out at me as important to writing clearly, the one that I value the most has got to be the power of reading your work out loud to someone else. I have found that even better is to have someone else read your work back to you. There is something about this process that really opens up your work with a light that is impossible to see when reading it to yourself quietly or out loud. This is such a useful strategy because it often leads to the discovery of breaks in many of the other rules.

  6. I have seen a number of articles recently that are talking about the importance of Art and Humanities courses within the education system and how they develop critical thinking skills. I think it goes without saying that the ability to write a persuasive and compelling arguments is a important skill that people need in most professions today. McCarthy gives good advice on how to better develop your writing skills, however there are many forms of writing and writing genres that should be taken into consideration when giving writing advice, such as writing in closed and open prose.


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