Writing Tips

Here are a few thoughts about academic writing.

  1. Avoid using "we".

    Philosophy: The word "we" is often used by lazy writers because it provides an easy way to give a sentence a subject. The problem is that doing so usually dilutes the impact of the sentence or obscures the true subject.

    Here is a real-world example (taken from a published paper): "In this paper we focus on statically checking behavioral properties of ..." The authors of the paper have little to do with the main point of the paper. The sentence above would be better as: "This paper focuses on statically checking behavioral properties of ..." This version emphasizes the true subject of the sentence, "this paper". It's also shorter.

    Unless the true subject of the sentence is the authors, avoid using "we". An acceptable use is: "We would like to thank the anonymous referees for providing helpful feedback on the earlier draft of this work."

  2. Parallelism is good.

    When a paragraph, bullet list, or sentence contains similar components, those components should use parallel construction. Opportunities for parallelism include: similar sentence structure, repeated verbs, repeated subjects. Required parallism: verb tense and noun plurality.

  3. Citation references are not nouns.

    Philosophy: The point of writing is communication to the reader. Because citation references are often numbers or alpha-numeric strings, it is difficult for the reader to ascribe them meaning. The reader should not need to refer to the bibliography to understand a sentence.

    Example: "As shown in [7], static type systems ..." should be "As shown by Harper et al. [7], static type sytems..." or "As shown previously, static type systems ... [7]."

    With citation styles that use the author's name as the index it is sometimes permissible to use the reference as a noun. For example, "As shown in (Harper et al. 1999), static type systems ...". But in this style even better would be "As shown by Harper et al. (1999), static type systems...".

  4. Good writing is readable. (Read your writing out loud.)

    Reading a sentence or paragraph aloud can reveal defects in its structure. Paragraphs that use the same sentence structure too frequently often sound choppy or awkward when read aloud. Complex phrases that trip up the tongue indicate that the sentence may need to be edited.

  5. When in doubt, look it up.

    There are many excellent resources to improve writing skills. Some of my favorite online resources are:

    One writing book intended especially for Computer Scientists is "Bugs in Writing: A guide to debugging your prose" by Lyn Dupre. Also see "An Evaluation of the Ninth SOSP Submissions, or, How (and How Not) to Write a Good Systems Paper" by Roy Levin and David D. Redell and "How To Have Your Abstract Rejected" by Mary-Claire van Leunen and Richard Lipton.

Last Modified: July 29, 2003 11:37 AM