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Advice on Writing About Research

How to write a professional looking paper

Why is this

stuff important?

    * Other people in other fields express their professionalism by doing

      things such as wearing suits. In our field it is the quality of the

      research, and of the presentation of that research that we

      use to represent ourselves

    * Research, without the ability to communicate it, may as well have

      never been done.

Caveats: You may be still learning how to write technical papers. This section is mostly not about that (although it's

something that will need continued work). Instead, it's about all the

things that you could do even if you knew nothing about writing, to

make the process smoother and more successful.

    * References should be consistantly formatted (for example, all author

      names and all occurrences of the same conference should be formatted

      the same way, all conference papers should be formatted the same

      way, same with journal papers, tech reports, and so on). References

      should meet basic standards for "normal" formatting in our community

      (for example, journals are typically cited with the format

      volume(issue):pages). Years should always be listed in the

      same place. If you use latex or word you should use the

      corresponding facilities (bibtex or cross referencing, preferably

      combined with Endnote) to ensure that your references are

      automatically updated when one is added or deleted. References

      should also be sorted alphabetically. More details can be found in a

      good grammar guide such as "The elements of style" (see last point


    * The document should be proof-read. This

      doesn't mean it needs to be perfect. However, spelling errors should

      be caught, major grammar errors should be caught, colloquialisms and

      contractions should be removed, hyphenation should be consistant,

      and latin (etc., e.g., et al., and so on)

      should be italicized and include the correct punctuation. In fact, there's quite a long list of things to look for when proof reading.

    * The document should be in the standard conference format, for

      whatever conference you are submitting to.

    * Read "The elements of style," by William Strunk, Jr. (An early

      edition without the insight of E.B. White is available at

      http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk1.html). 4th ed. Boston : Allyn

      and Bacon, c1999. xviii, 105 p. This covers many of the issues

      above, including how to format references, etc. Some other writing

      resources: http://newark.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/links.html

The above list may seem daunting and unecessary, after all the work

that went in to the actual content of a paper. You may even think it is too detail oriented. It is not unecessary, although it does take time. This list does represent high standards. However, refer back to the comment on

professionalism. Papers submitted to conferences should be

ready to publish. This is crucial to understand. The impression you

make on reviewers depends in large part on meeting this


In addition to the above issues, here are some writing tips. The

following things should be done from draft 1:

    * Start with an outline.

    * Don't worry about everything making sense. Just write!

    * Be as detailed as possible. A paper is a user interface that must

      support walk-up-and-use people who have never seen that exact subject

      matter before. Explain things to them

    * Put drafts of figures in -- these can be ascii drawings, so long

      as something is there.

    * When you get comments from someone, if you choose not to address them

      in the paper, write a response or an explanation for why

      not. Or discuss them with your advisor in person.

The following is a tip that you will learn to incorporate over time,

but should not be a focus in your early drafts. This tip is an easy

fix later on, and likely to cause writer's block if applied to early:

Say what you're going to say, say it, and then say that you said

it. Another piece of advice is that every unit from the entire paper

down to each paragraph should have that structure. I should be able to

look at just the abstract and get a sense of the whole paper. I should

be able to look at the first paragraph of each section to get a sense

of what the section is about. I should be able to look at the first

sentence of each paragraph and learn what the paragraph is about.

Another tip: A good rule of thumb for related work is only say as much as you have

to. That means that you only describe something in detail if (a)

understanding it is key to understanding your paper or (b) a

reviewer might question how much your work differs from the work

you cited. Otherwise, you need to practice the skill of summarizing

why it's relevant without explaining the whole system. Careful not

to simply say *that* it's interesting though.

Some other advice

    * Writing Abstracts about your work

    * Good Writing by Marc H. Raibert