How to Use Em Dash, According to Cormac McCarthy

Writer Cormac McCarthy has spent twenty years editing what appears to be the opposite of the novel: research papers by faculty and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute. Some of the scholars, with whom he worked, paraphrased and made the best writing advice McCarthy . This applies to all kinds of writing, from emails to novels.

As a long-distance abuser, I especially liked this advice:

Dotted lines should highlight those sections that you consider most important, without using bold or italics, and not only for defining terms. (Brackets can represent sentences quieter and softer than commas.)

McCarthy has some more punctuation tips. By advising on how to use the different marks, he reveals their purpose and impact on the reading experience:

Don’t rely on semicolons as a crutch to combine loosely coupled ideas. It only contributes to bad writing. From time to time, you can use abbreviations such as “no,” “don’t,” and “shouldn’t.” Don’t be too formal. And don’t use exclamation marks to draw attention to the point’s meaning. Instead, you can say “amazing” or “intriguing,” but don’t overdo it. Use these words only once or twice per sheet.

He recommends removing unnecessary commas and explains how to find them:

Commas indicate a pause in a conversation. The phrase “By contrast” at the beginning of a sentence needs a comma to emphasize that the sentence is different from the previous one, not to distinguish the first two words of the sentence from the rest of the sentence. Say the sentence out loud to find pauses.

McCarthy himself is not one of those who love long distance, but rather one of those who love three words and a period. His prose style is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, who still committed suicide but managed to continue writing. But he doesn’t teach people to write like him. He teaches them how to write effectively.


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