Friday, September 16, 2011

Every time you write a bad paper an angel cries

"Writing is an art, every word has a specific meaning, and each expressions should hold an objective."

Scientific writing, unlike any other kind of writing has a very specific goal: To report your findings in a clear and concise way. Your opinion while important, has to leave most of the space for the cold, hard, facts. I read once that in writing, academics are like civil engineers, their work is to make sturdy structures that will have a solid foundation, leave the niceties and decorations to the architects.

But how do you know what to write? Usually a good paper's results can be replicated by an informed reader. (In the NIPS reviewers poll, that is one of the conditions). Thus, your paper needs enough information so a fellow researcher does not need to ask you any questions.

Sound easy right? Truth is, it isn't.

Sadly, most people thing that because they can speak, they can write. A large number of people, think that writing the way they speak is the way to do a research paper (or any online publication). However, clarity is a luxury we usually forget when we speak, for example, while saying that there was "a lot" of people in the market is a great expression when telling a story, in a research paper saying that they had "a lot" of data is non representative of the amount, and thus ambiguous.

A research paper, unlike speaking, allows us to rewrite our sentences several times. Remember that is impossible to ask for clarification when reading an article (unless you send an email), so you have to write as clear as possible. All those times you've had to clarify what you meant with a sentence when speaking, are dead sentences in writing. My rule of thumb is that a reader has to  understand the paper without me sitting next to them.

But how do we learn to write well? If you are lucky, your advisor is still very prolific, and a lifetime of reading and writing papers have given him at least a good idea of how to structure a paper. With time, you too will have a hold of the most common rules of writing a research paper. Something I tend to do is check for verb consistency, is every noun's action being described by a verb, or not. If you have free nouns in your paper, you will have confusion. If you're not sure, keep yourself from writing complex statements, and instead hold to the basics.

There are other tools you can use to improve your writing. "The elements of Style" by Strunk and White and "On Writing Well" by Zinsser are 2 great books which offer great and basic advice on how to structure a good piece. While the books are mostly oriented towards people writing real literature (for me academic journals are more like technical reviews), they do help you to structure your sentences so they become less ambiguous (clarity, clarity, clarity).

My advise is to practice, you can try writing a blog, writing papers for small conferences, or even mock papers (there is no rule against them) and look for your mistakes, look for things you could write in a better way. Try asking people to read your documents and see how much sense it made to them. Really, I think you have to  keep practicing over and over, until you get a firm grasp on paper writing.

Another really important thing is to review. If your paper has typos, it speaks ill of you and your research, it shows you as a sloppy author and thus a sloppy researcher. Take your time to re read your papers. I usually spend around 3 days writing a blog post, first I write it in what we could barely call English, then I re-read the entry and I try to give sense by taking out sentences, useless words and adding clarity. Then I use tools like Microsoft spell checking and style checking to look for the use of odd sentences and passive voice (extreme use of passive voice in a paper adds confusion and usually is better to write using an active form)

It is fair to say I spend 2 to 3 times more doing the reviewing than the writing of the piece, but I know it helps me to write better the next time. So I don't look at it as a burden, but rather as practice.

If you have any other advise on writing let the comment section hear them.

Remember to visit my webpage And if you want to keep up with my most recent research, you can tweet me at @leonpalafox.
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