For twenty years, novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) has been an unofficial "editor-at-large" for the Sante Fe Institute, where he is a trustee. McCarthy has helped numerous scientists improve the writing in their technical papers about theoretical physics, complex systems, biology, and the like. In the new issue of Nature, theoretical biologist Van Savage and evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh present a distillation of McCarthy's advice on "how to write a great scientific paper." I think the suggestions are applicable to any kind of non-fiction writing. Here are a few of the tips, from Nature:
• 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.
• Decide on your paper's theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember. This theme and these points form the single thread that runs through your piece. The words, sentences, paragraphs and sections are the needlework that holds it together. If something isn't needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
• Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct. Concise, clear sentences work well for scientific explanations. Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as 'however' or 'thus' — so that the reader can focus on the main message.
• Don't over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it's relevant. Your paper is not a dialogue with the readers' potential questions, so don't go overboard anticipating them. Don't say the same thing in three different ways in any single section. Don't say both 'elucidate' and 'elaborate'. Just choose one, or you risk that your readers will give up.
• Choose concrete language and examples. If you must talk about arbitrary colours of an abstract sphere, it's more gripping to speak of this sphere as a red balloon or a blue billiard ball.