Becoming a good writer is perhaps the single greatest thing you can do to further your research career. Your ideas and engineering, algorithmic, or theoretical solutions can be strong and original, but if you communicate your ideas poorly then you will diminish the impact of your ideas and solutions. A cogent and concise description of your research helps readers to understand the core issues which you are dealing with, rather than getting bogged down in the details of their communication.
It is sometimes helpful to think of your paper as the user interface to your research. If it is confusing and poorly presented then nobody will take note of it. By contrast, a clear, fluid, compact, and visually inviting presentation will entice your audience to
Understand that the process of writing almost always leads you to a more thorough comprehension of your topic. You should never consider the process of writing as an extraneous task that prevents you from doing the very work which you are trying to describe. If you want to describe a theory or algorithm well, you must understand it completely. By seeking to cogently describe your work, you will come to understand it better, and thus will improve on the work itself.
Use bulleted lists for 3 or more items. Sometimes bulleted lists are appropriate for 2 items, but if so set it up such that the reader expects only 2 items. A bullet should almost never be used for just 1 item, unless you are really trying to call attention to it ... and in most cases you'd want a label instead (e.g. Thm #1: or whatever).
If you can summarize the bullet in just one or two words, do so and bold or italic those words.
Use no unnecessary words. As you read your draft, always ask yourself, "could I convey the same ideas with fewer words?" From an engineering standpoint, you want the text of your document to have a high signal to noise ratio.
Keep paragraphs fairly short. Look to break up long paragraphs. If the paragraph is lengthy b/c it addresses a series of points, break it up using a bulleted list.
Read Marc Raibert's paper.
For scientific papers, pay particular attention to his points about "spilling the beans." Don't make your paper a mystery: divulge everything from the start. If you have good stuff that someone should be interested, put it right up there in the abstract and introduction, to try to hook your reader. Put your most important idea(s) right into the title.
The conclusion is a great place for bulleted lists that quickly (in a few words per bullet) summarize your main ideas or, for example, the main advantages of your technique.
Also use your conclusion as a point to jump off into your future work section. You might point out some of the shortcomings of the work (if you haven't already done so) and then quickly (in the future work section) follow with how you plan to fix or ameliorate the problems you encountered.
For future work, be sure to suggest some fairly trivial extensions that you already are planning or even starting to implement. Use these to lead in to your more radical or futuristic extensions.
Writers often like to end their scientific papers on visionary note. be extremely careful if you do this. It is okay to hint at where your work might go in say, 2 or 3 years. It is also okay to suggest where your work could go if a tractable technological impediment were removed add concrete examples . But do not turn into a science fiction geek here. Don't suggest there's a pot of gold if you know darn well that it probably doesn't exist.
With rare exceptions, these words will weaken your text. Find all occurrences and eradicate them, even if it means recasting your sentences a bit.
Write using verbs and nouns. In scientific papers it is especially important to Avoid unnecessary adjectives and flowery prose. This is one of the most difficult guidelines to apply... it will take practice. Give examples
Read Strunk and White.
Don't open yourself to attack by the reviewers.
Unless you are absolutely certain you can defend yourself against all attacks, do not make overly definitive statements, unless they specifically describe your work:
nobody has tried the research we are aware of has not there is no existing evidence suggests that...etc...
Use figures and photographs wherever possible. You can frequently express ideas that would take whole paragraphs with using one simple figure. If a picture can be used to help explain your main idea, (1) be sure to make a good figure and include it, and (2) put it right on the front page of your work, right below the abstract or in the introduction. The picture will become a sort of symbol for your paper that will help people remember it, and the picture itself will attract attention.
If you're clever, figures and photographs are a good way to provide a "digest" of your paper. Many people will read only the abstract and then flip through, looking at the just the pictures. If the pictures provide a high-level overview of the paper, you may draw the reader's interest and get him to read the whole paper, or at the very least, you will succeed in communicating your main idea to the reader.
This is even more true for slide presentations of your work...
A very gifted writer might be able to write a decent paper with as few as 6 iterations. A skilled English major could probably get by with about 12 or so. For the rest of us mere mortals, and graduate engineering students in particular, 20 or more iterations of the document would not be an unreasonable number.
If you are out of practice, set aside 2-3 weeks to work on your paper, and try to iterate on the design of the paper almost every day (even if you just re-organize a couple of paragraphs). You will find that not only does the writing improve, but the scientific merits of the work that you are describing will improve as well.
To explain something clearly requires that you understand it thoroughly. The process of writing the document will help you to discover errors and weak spots in your work. By setting aside lots of time to write the paper, you are also allowing yourself time to patch up the weak areas in your work.
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