I’ve read plenty of papers in various IEEE engineering and computing journals that function better as powerful sedatives than as didactic descriptions of the author’s work. A repeated annoyance for me is reading research papers where the author’s inability or unwillingness to “bring it down a level” means that I’m going to have to spend much more time than I should have to invest to unravel the mystery of the person’s work. If I didn’t know better, I would think that, for some of these scholars, purposeful obfuscation is the main goal.
I certainly can’t claim to be the world’s best technical writer, but I am nothing if not self-reflective, self-critical, and open-minded. Lessons stick with me, particularly ones that were learned painfully.
I entered my junior year thinking I was the best writer at Marist High School. Mr. Ormond, a Mr. Belvedere lookalike with a dry wit I found quite off-putting and intimidating, thought otherwise. For the first time in my life, I started to get B’s and C’s on my writing.
Why? Had I suddenly lost my way with words? As it turned out, Mr. Belvedere … err, Ormond … wanted me to find a new muse, one who wasn’t so flowery and needlessly verbose, one who shot for a lower word count and a higher idea-to-word ratio. Before him, I was graded by teachers who would compliment my precocious vocabulary and penchant for using a thesaurus. They would marvel at my average sentence length, apparently believing some odd English-nerd perspective on the claim that “size matters”. Changing my writing to fit Mr. Ormond’s appreciation for simplicity and style would take some doing. Would it be worth it? Would this awkward teenager, who already was questioning so much about himself and whether he was actually good at anything, take up this challenge and change his approach to writing?
It turned out that it wasn’t so difficult to find a new Muse. Austerity was her name, and I’ve been listening to, if not always heeding, her ever since.
I’m giving a presentation on Wednesday morning to undergraduate researchers in the Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, and Physics) on how to write a quality research paper. You can download my WritingTips here. The slides, like my approach to writing research papers, are rather spartan. I aim to make an impact through lack of distraction. I suppose that carries over to my teaching, too, as I try to focus on the inherent value and even the joy of the material rather than dwell on the attendant responsibilities of reading textbook passages and doing hours of at-home work that traditionally come with being a student. Simply, I believe in the centrality of stripping away complexity. What you have left after that striptease is probably something worth watching.
I’ve already made Mr. Ormond unhappy by writing too much on this subject. I’ll conclude this piece simply by outlining what I think is my best advice on writing a scholarly paper, at least in the sciences:
- Minimize the use of words.
- Follow the “Golden Rule”: have your reader read only what you would want to read.
- Provide your readers a road map at the start, describing what each section of the paper will explore.
- Provide smooth transitions between sections of your paper.
- When in doubt, cite!
- When you cite something, lean toward paraphrasing it rather than quoting it.
- Don’t just throw opinion out there. Substantiate what you claim!
- Aim always to teach, never to impress.
Good papers, like good lectures, give off an aura of simplicity. Keep it simple, scholar!