Twenty-eight tips for research writing

Part of my job is to train students to write research papers. This involves me "teaching" technical writing, which I am definitely not trained to do. So I don't know what general training to give students to improve their writing. However, there are a lot of do's and don'ts that I like and don't like, respectively. These are (mostly) easy rules to follow that a student can (and should) check on their own. Please add comments to this post if you think of other helpful do's and don'ts.

  1. DO NOT start a sentence with a reference.
  2. DO NOT start a sentence with any number that is not spelled out. That is, don't say "34 sensors are placed in a circle..."; instead say "Thirty-four sensors are placed in a circle".
  3. DO tend to put citations at the end of a sentence rather than at the start. It's nicer form to say "Objects moving near a transmitter or receiver cause fading [6]", rather than "Reference [6] shows that objects moving near a transmitter or receiver cause fading". The latter makes it seem like you just want to check off of all of your references that you need to cite, rather than wanting to add the contributions of these other authors as the basis for the paper you're writing.
  4. DO build your research upon others' results. Hal Daumé (Utah SoC) reports being struck by a reviewer who commmented, "Other approaches don't have to be bad in order for your approach to be good." There's no need to put down other results, just show how your results or your research builds on the foundation of this past research.
  5. DO NOT excessively name the authors in papers when citing them. Say what they've contributed, then cite the paper.
  6. DO specify the contributions of the paper in at least one or two sentences when citing it. DO NOT cite lots of papers at once, unless the topic is only marginally related to the topic of your writing.
  7. DO write out in words any whole numbers below about fifteen when counting the number of something in a paper. I'm not sure exactly where the line is; but instead of, "There are 4 filters in Figure 2", say "There are four filters in Figure 2".
  8. DO put some concrete numerical results from your research in the abstract, for example, "We demonstrate a 35% improvement compared to the state-of-the-art method".
  9. DO NOT say "complex" when you really mean "complicated". The word "complex" should be used only when describing numbers which have real and imaginary components.
  10. DO NOT say "Rx" when you mean "receiver". The abbreviation "Rx" is for "prescription", which is probably not what you mean. The abbreviation "RX" can be used for receiver.
  11. DO NOT say "being done" when you mean "performed".
  12. DO NOT say "utilize" when you mean "use". In general, use simple language when it exists.
  13. DO NOT say "I". Not in technical paper. Even if you are writing a paper as a sole author, use "we". Al Hero, my former advisor, told me that it is the royal "we".
  14. DO say "we" to avoid excessive passive sentences, when talking about what we do in this paper. I imagine technical writing classes tell you not to, but in my experience, it often works well, and helps people read your writing.
  15. DO use acronyms when they are common. Or perhaps you are allowed to create one or two in your paper. Just be sure to spell out any acronym before its first use. Also, if you spell out the acronym in the abstract, you will have to do it again in the introduction.
  16. DO NOT excessively use acronyms. Don't use an acronym if you only use that acronym once, because then you have to spell it out anyway (and thus doesn't save you any space). If you've first defined an acronym in the Discussion or Conclusion section, it's probably too late to introduce that acronym.
  17. DO start each paragraph with a topic sentence that says what the paragraph is going to say. The following sentences in the paragraph support that topic sentence. Anything that doesn't support that topic sentence doesn't belong in the paragraph. If you find some odd sentence that you want to say, but it doesn't fit in that paragraph, put it in some other paragraph, make a new paragraph, or delete it (if it is unrelated to any topic in your paper, then you don't need it).
  18. DO finish each paragraph with a concluding sentence, which either ties the supporting sentences together, or provides a lead-in to the next paragraph. Or both.
  19. DO NOT start a section with a "The function blah is given by" followed by an equation. Each section requires a reason to exist, and that reason must be presented first. No equation's importance is self-evident.
  20. DO NOT use the phrase, "It means ...". You might instead write "Equivalently, ...", or "That is, ...".
  21. DO run a spell check! I know its a pain to "ignore" all of the math and LaTeX notation that the spell check catches. But you will find errors.
  22. DO NOT present data without discussion! This is a big one. Your job is not just to do the analysis and produce a beautiful figure or table. Your job is to tell the reader what it means. Sure, they could figure it out on their own. But most will not spend the time. Tell them what you learned from looking at the data and/or results.
  23. DO capitalize things that are named after a person, e.g., Fourier, and Gaussian. DO NOT capitalize a phrase just because it has an acronym associated with it. For example, if you're introducing radio tomogoraphic imaging (RTI), you can keep the words "radio", "tomographic", and "imaging" all lowercase, even though there is an acronym also being introduced. People will know where you got the letters "R", "T", and "I".
  24. DO NOT use non-technical language. That is, some words that are acceptable in spoken English are not acceptable in technical writing. For example, "totally", "good".
  25. DO learn about the crazy things we are supposed to do for the sake of the English language. I apologize for this language, there is no reason for some of these things, but here we are. Learn when to use "the" or "a" or nothing before a noun ("We present the maximum likelihood estimator..." vs. "We present an estimator..." vs. "We discuss estimation ..."). Do make sure that the subject and verb agree, when the subject is plural vs. singular, you need to match the conjugation of the verb to match. When capitalizing a title, learn which words are capitalized and which (short) words are not (for example, the word "of" is not in "University of Utah").
  26. DO look up tech words to see if your use is standard notation. Your spell check is probably useless; but Google isn't. For example, is "multi-path" hyphenated? Google gives "multipath" thirty times more results than "multi-path", so it gives me a good indication to kick the hyphen on this one.
  27. DO NOT use the word "clearly". In my opinion, this word is used by researchers who don't want to explain themselves. I've read it in papers, and quite often, have no idea why the conclusion is so clear.
  28. DO be as specific as possible, all things being equal. If an equivalent-length sentence could have been more specific, then use it instead.