Some tips for writing a good paper
Some tips for writing a good paper
If you are a student or a young researcher beginning to write a technical paper, you may
find yourself in a difficult position: most likely you have received little or no specific
training in how to write well, yet your paper will be the main outcome of your work by which other people
will judge you. On this page I'm offering a few general tips, compiled from personal experience, which you might find
helpful to consider.
- First of all, ask yourself whether this paper is worth writing. A good paper should contain new and
technically correct results which solve a challenging and well-motivated problem. Will your paper meet
all of these criteria? If not, maybe you should postpone the writing and return to the research. Conference deadlines
and other such forms of peer pressure are poor excuses, and disappointed readers will be unlikely to take
them into account.
- Before you actually start typing, take the time to think
carefully about what you're going to write. What
will be the main message of your paper? Can you clearly visualize the whole paper in your head? Have
you decided on the best section structure? If you sit down in front of a computer too early,
you'll end up wasting time. A similar suggestion applies if you get stuck in the middle of writing:
get up and take a walk, and don't resume writing until it becomes clear to you how to proceed.
- Do not postpone working on a paper until you are no longer excited about
the results and
have moved on to other things. If the technical content of the paper is still fresh in your mind,
writing the text will come more naturally to you and you'll produce a better paper with less
effort. Avoid the common practice of putting a rough draft aside to polish it later, because returning
to it will be painful. Careful writing also helps uncover errors and gaps in your reasoning.
- Writing a paper is a culmination of several months of work, during which you have thought about
certain concepts and ideas until your brain became very accustomed to them. Many aspects of your problem
which used to be fuzzy have gradually become clear to you, and it is easy to forget the steps that you
struggled with. The readers weren't there with you through this process, though, and this is something
you need to constantly keep in mind as you are writing.
- An important choice to make is regarding the level of generality at which you are going to present your
results. The context in which you originally developed your ideas was probably somewhat specific, but they
will have more value if cast in a more general conceptual framework. However, if you go too far
in this direction, your results may start to look impenetrable to all but the most sophisticated readers. This
problem can to some extent be mitigated by giving very specific examples.
- Motivating the reader doesn't end with the introduction. Remember that most readers will read your
paper only if they want to, not because they have to. So, you have to provide continual
motivation for them to keep reading. For example, it is usually not a good idea to start a long
calculation that will eventually lead to an important result. It is better to first state the result,
explain why it's important, and then give the calculations required to prove it.
- The complexity of your writing should be compatible with your English ability. For many of us,
English is not the native language. Only use a fancy word or a complicated grammatical construction if
you feel confident that you are using it correctly. Otherwise, substitute it with something simpler. You should be
in control of the words that you're writing, not the other way around. And remember that many of your
readers won't be native English speakers either.
- It is absolutely necessary to print out a hard copy and proofread it carefully, preferably after a break and away
from the computer. If you're looking at the screen to check what you've just written, many mistakes will go unnoticed because your brain will automatically substitute what you wrote with what you
intended to write. It is also easier to see the "big picture" when you're holding the page
in your hands.
- Learn to be self-critical. Ask yourself not whether what you wrote is good enough, but whether
there is any way to further improve it. No matter how much you try, other people will still criticize
some aspects of your paper, but at least you'll be able to say that you did your best. On the other
hand, if people see that your writing is sloppy, they will assume that your research is sloppy
- Remember that you are also writing for yourself, because
you will be frequently revisiting your papers in your future work. Getting stuck while trying to follow your
own paper is very frustrating (and there is nobody to ask for help).
This is another motivation for writing clearly
and not covering nontrivial steps with phrases like "it is easy to see that..."
- Be responsive to reviewers' comments. Don't be combative. If a reviewer misunderstood something in your paper, chances
are that many readers will misunderstand it as well. Use this feedback to improve your paper. Of course,
this doesn't mean that you should make changes that go against your own taste and judgment
just to satisfy the reviewers.
- It is certainly helpful to read books, articles, and online resources about good
writing practices. Papers
that you read for your research are also a great resource: while reading them,
carefully note what you like and don't like.
Just remember that everyone has their own writing style and not all advice will work for you. This is of
course also true of the advice given on this page.