Episode 15: Lessons from a Master – Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is the Pulitzer Prize award-winning and best-selling author of books like The Road, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses. If you’ve ever read any of his work you know his aggressively sparse writing style. Words and sentences go unpunctuated, dialogue lacks quotation marks, and his prose is concise and lean. It’s a writing style that not everyone loves. Some people outright hate it. Either way, what he’s doing can serve as an example of techniques that we can use to make our own writing better, even if we don’t take them nearly as far as McCarthy does.

In this episode of the podcast, we explore four techniques: (1) getting rid of as much punctuation as possible; (2) using word choice to illustrate character traits; (3) keeping dialogue sparse but powerful; and (4) creating “little mysteries” for the reader. By the way, McCarthy would HATE the previous sentence with its busyness of colons, semicolons, and commas. But why? And how might we make it better?


I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of The Road or any of McCarthy’s other masterpieces of prose. If you’d like to get the same edition that I referred to in this podcast so that the page references are accurate, order this version.

You can find the Cormac McCarthy interview with Oprah Winfrey I mentioned on the show here: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/cormac-mccarthy-on-james-joyce-and-punctuation-video

This is the excerpt from page 4 of The Road that I used to talk about lack of punctuation:

With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.

Our WISE WORD quote was also from Cormac McCarthy. Here it is in its entirety:

“Even if what you’re working on doesn’t go anywhere, it will help you with the next thing you’re doing. Make yourself available for something to happen. Give it a shot.”

Our WEEKLY CHALLENGE this week was to choose one of the four techniques that we explored from the work of Cormac McCarthy. Select a piece of your current draft and simply search out a section that might benefit from trying one of these techniques. I chose technique #1: getting rid of commas and other punctuation where it isn’t absolutely necessary. I think you’ll find that, regardless of which technique you use, your writing will become tighter and more powerful. At the very least, the technique will be more on your mind next time you’re writing, which is a great thing.

Have a topic request for a future show? Know of a great author that you’d love to hear interviewed on Inside Creative Writing? Talk to us and let us know!

You may also like...

Popular Posts