This document contains some tips that I have gathered from a number of
sources about how to write a paper. It is intended to augment what you
should already know. I have compiled this list from personal experience
writing such documents, from personal experience reading and evaluating
such documents, and from the recommendations of good writers (including
some computer scientists!)
The Process of Writing a Paper
Here is the process that I recommend you use when writing any paper:
(1) sketch an outline, (1) expand your
outline, (3) write your paper, and
(4) re-write until you get it right.
I also suggest that you follow some
for grammar and word selection.
1 -- Sketch an outline of the paper.
- Think of your outline as a future table of contents to the paper..
- Estimate the number of pages or paragraphs for each section.
- Look at other reports for ideas about how to organize your paper.
- Be sure to have an introduction, a body of two or more sections, and
- Discuss your sketch with me.
- A sample outline for research reports
and theses is given below.
2 -- Expand your outline.
- List the major points you want to make about each topic.
- Add subheadings, especially for larger sections.
- Discuss your sketch with me.
3 -- Write your paper.
- Write sections in any order you want. When one section
has you stumped, move on to a fresh section.
- After you've written adjacent sections, make sure that the
transition between them works.
- Keep writing! It is easier to modify and delete than it is to
- Write carefully. Think about what you are trying to say, and
then write it down. If that's hard, try saying it out loud
- Organize points in a logical order. Each paragraph, each
section, should tell a story.
- Each section should have an introduction, a body, and a summary
- Each paragraph should make one point. Each sentence within a
paragraph should make one sub-point toward that point.
- Use between four and sentences per paragraph. That is, write
short paragraphs that make complete points.
- State the main point of the paragraph first, and state any
elaborations or exceptions afterwards.
- If you have written a program as a part of the project being
reported, include an appendix that describes where the system is
and how to run it.
- Put examples of system runs in an appendix, too. Refer to them
in the text.
- Use simple words whenever possible. Most of your sentences
should be relatively short.
- Use boldface and italics consistently.
- Be consistent in how you name and format section headings.
- Number sections, but no deeper than n.n.n (e.g., 1.2.3)
- Check your spelling and grammar.
I recommend using an on-line spell checker only as a
first check; be sure to have a real person (not me while
grading!!) review your spelling and grammar, too.
4 -- Re-write until you get it right.
- Read what you have written out loud.
- While reading, if you cannot decide where to pause or to place
stress, then no other reader will be able to, either.
- Don't be afraid to re-write a whole paragraph or a whole section if
you feel it is necessary.
Specific Examples of Grammar and Word Selection
Following each of these rules is bound to improve your paper:
- The possessive form of the word "it" is "its," not "it's." The use of
"it's" is the contractive form of "it is."
- Do not use contractions! Examples include "didn't" and `"it's." In
technical writing, it is best to use the full form. Hence our
examples would be replaced by "did not" and "it is."
- Avoid using the word "very," "really," and other such words whose
purpose is to embellish a description. They add no meaning and should
be dropped. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, "Replace every occurrence of the
word 'very' with the word 'damn.' You won't change the meaning of
your sentence, and your editor will be sure to delete the 'damn.'"
- Carefully consider any sentence in which you repeat the same word.
Often, you can re-write the sentence in a better way.
- Do not speak to the reader in second person, using the words "you" and
"your," unless you are writing a document such as a user manual.
- Use either present or past tense in writing your report. In
particular, try to avoid using the word "will" unless you are
referring to an event that has not yet occurred.
- When using demonstrative pronouns, such as "this" or "these", be sure
that their referents are clear.
- Do not use "they" to refer to a singular person. Either rewrite the
sentence to avoid such a reference, or use a singular pronoun.
Personally, I don't care if you use "he," "she," or "he or she," as
long as you are consistent. In general, avoiding such references is
- The word "data" is the plural form of the singular "datum." Use the
whichever is appropriate.
- Do not use words such as "thing" or "stuff." They add no meaning to
your text. Be specific when you write.
- Try to avoid ending sentences with words prepositions. But do not go
to such lengths that your text becomes stilted.
- Periods and commas should appear inside quotation marks.
A Sample Outline for Research Reports and Theses
You should organize your paper in a way that fits your project and your
writing style. But you should also ensure that your reader can find and
follow the important points in your paper. You may want to start with this
- This section should motivate what you are doing and why you are
doing it. What is the problem you tried to solve? What approach
did you use? What is important about your results?
- Tell the reader what she needs to know to understand your problem
- Describe the design of your experiment or system. Why did you
take this approach? What alternatives did you consider?
- How did you implement experiment or system? What issues arose
during the project that you had not anticipated? How did you
resolve them? Did you have to make any changes in your design?
Why and how?
- System in Action
- Give a demonstration of your experiment or system in action.
This may consist of narrative text, system transcripts, or both.
Use examples that illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of your
- What are the results of your work? These might be performance
results or an evaluation based on user feedback.
- Future Work
- Based on the results and your own evaluation, describe projects
that might follow up on, confirm, or expand upon your project.
What questions do your results leave unanswered? What new
questions do they raise? (This material may be included in the
- Summarize your project briefly. What is important about your
project and its results? What did you learn in the process?
Eugene Wallingford ====
August 24, 2003