David Chiang (University of Notre Dame)
Kevin Knight (University of Southern California / Information Sciences Institute)
A few years ago, we prepared a series of workshops on writing research papers and talks. Our first workshop began with three obvious principles:
- Understand your ideas.
- Know what a good paper looks like.
- Write for your reader, not for yourself.
These tips are obvious, but they’re not easy!
1. Understand your ideas.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
— attributed to Albert Einstein
If you don’t understand your ideas well, you will not present your ideas well. No matter how good of a writer you are, you cannot get your reader to understand your ideas better than you yourself do. So understand your ideas before you communicate them.
Einstein’s apocryphal advice is the converse: if you find that you are not presenting your ideas well, that could be a sign that you don’t understand them well. This means that it can be a good practice to write in order to understand. As you struggle to write down your ideas, you will learn to think about them better, and you will find and fix bugs in your ideas. (To do this, of course, you need to start writing early – even, as some people are in that habit of doing, starting the paper on day one of a project.)
2. Know what a good paper looks like.
If you don’t know what a good paper or talk looks like, then you won’t be able to write a good paper or talk. When you see the statements
2 + 2 = 4
2 + 2 = 5
how quickly do you see which one is true and which one is false? But when you look at a paper, how quickly can you tell whether it is good or bad? Strive to develop the ability to recognize good and bad communication instantly.
Fortunately, this is not hard to do. Read other people’s papers. Not your own papers, because you already (hopefully) understand your own papers. Read published papers and read your friends’ drafts. If you understand a paper, it’s probably good – try to spot what makes it good, and go and do likewise. If you don’t understand a paper, it’s probably bad. If you can, ask the author for clarifications. The better you get at asking questions, the better you will be able to ask yourself the same kinds of questions as you write.
3. Write for your reader, not for yourself.
It should be obvious that, because the point of communication is that you have some knowledge and you want to impart that knowledge to your readers, communication should be adapted to the needs of your readers, not yourself. But think about the difference between writing for your readers and writing for yourself. Writing for yourself is easy: type in a bag of words that activates your neurons just enough to remind you of your own work – done! Writing for others is hard. So it should not be a surprise that, in practice, many people end up just writing for themselves.
Make your writing clear to your readers, not just yourself. This takes extra time – a lot of extra time. But this time makes all the other time you spend on research not go to waste.
In our next post, we’ll share three more (hopefully less obvious) tips on how to make your writing reader-centric.