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Writing tips

The National Association of Colleges and Employers consistently ranks verbal and written communication skills among the highest attributes that employers seek on a candidate's resume. Here are just a few tips to help you be a better communicator. I also highly recommend use of online spell-checking software and grammar checking plugins (e.g., Grammarly)

General writing tips

Academic writing in the domain of computer science typically assumes an audience with roughly the knowledge contained in senior-level CS curriculum. In all writing, the following general guidelines should be followed:

  • Use a descriptive title (see this site for some good guidelines)
  • Always use first person plural tense (even for a single author). Use present tense wherever reasonably possible in academic writing, especially when reporting methods that are presumed to be replicable. Past tense may be used when reporting particular experimental conditions, when describing experiments (not methods), and when reporting the results measured from those experiments.
  • Avoid contractions, excessive use of nondescript pronouns (e.g., "it", "this", "those", "others"), and excess or insufficient commas.
  • Never cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source. Go to the original publications.
  • In general, avoid capitalizing words unless it is a proper name (if in doubt, Google it).
  • Capitalize references to specific chapters, figures, etc., in a book or paper, but use lowercase to refer to a general part of the book or paper. (e.g., "In Chapter 3 you will find.… This chapter describes.… Read Appendix A.")
  • Be consistent with your orthography. For example:
    • Be consistent with the use of American or British English spelling.
    • Be consistent in how you reference figures (Fig. vs Figure).
  • No rhetorical questions in academic writing.
  • Learn and use colons, commas, and semi-colons correctly. This includes using the Oxford comma.
  • Never start a sentence with a numeral.
  • Use hyphens correctly. In particular, use a hyphen for compound adjectives; use suspended hyphens as appropriate; and do not use hyphens with very or with adverbs ending in ly.
  • Do not put a bibliographic reference for a statement that is broadly intuitive or which requires no reference.
  • Do not nest section headings immediately one after the other without some text in between.
  • Learn and use the correct abbreviations for latin phrases (e.g., i.e., e.g., cf., etc.).
  • If presenting a result that included software development, include a link to the software. If the software is the primary focus of the paper, put the link on a new line at the end of the abstract prefaced by the word "Source code". Otherwise, include it as a footnote somewhere where it feels natural within the body of the paper.
  • Avoid hyperbolic expressions, adjectives, and language in general.
  • Avoid the temptation of listing multiple words that mean the same thing. E.g., "These concepts can be difficult to understand and comprehend."
  • Avoid too many conjunctions/prepositions in a single sentence. Especially avoid repetitive prepositions in the same sentence.
  • In academic writing, "we" always refers specifically to the authors. When using "we" to refer to people in general, try to specify a particular group (e.g., "Educators", "researchers", etc.) or use passive tense instead (e.g., "There exists a tendency" instead of "We tend").
  • Any time you can easily replace a pronoun (e.g., "it", "they", "this") with what that pronoun stands in for, the more it helps the reader understand what you want to say.
  • Avoid "certain" and "important" as adjectives. Instead define what is unique or "important" about those "certain" things.
  • Acronyms defined in the abstract have to be redefined in the body of the paper. Acronyms should be defined before first use.
  • Regarding table and figure positioning:
    • Figures/tables should appear as close in the paper to where they are first referenced in the body of the text.
    • Figures/tables should never appear before the page on which they are first referenced in the text.
    • Figures/tables should always appear in the order in which they are referenced in the text.
    • Figures/tables should generally not be inline but rather should float at the top of or bottom of the page.
    • Fonts used in figures/tables should be no smaller than what would be about 11 pt font in the paper.
    • Where appropriate, figures/tables should be made to span multiple columns to increase legibility.

Structure of a research paper

Unless indicated otherwise, a research paper should be organized more or less as follows:

  • An abstract of roughly 200 words that summarizes the paper (look to write 1-2 sentences for each of the following sections)
  • An introduction/background section that tells a compelling story and place your work in the context of the (applicable) field(s)). The opening paragraph (and especially the first sentence) should be a 'hook', presenting the case for why this work is important. This typically is accomplished by emphasizing the problem (in its broadest, most global form) that the work solves (what is the "world hunger"-level framing of the problem?). Rather than a separate related works section, I suggest weaving in the related works (with citations) and tell the related works as more of a contextualizing story. Italicize and define clearly important terms in their first usage. (~1 page)
  • A methods section that succinctly and accurately explains your approach (~2-3 pages). Your goal is to explain your methods with sufficient detail so as to allow your results to be replicated. Use formal mathematical definition where possible to be precise. Where formal mathematical definition is used, preface this definition with an accessible introduction to help prepare the reader mentally to understand the definition to come. All variables should be clearly defined.
  • A results section that provides results and analysis (~2-3 pages)
  • A discussion/conclusion section that discusses implications, contributions and future work (~1 page)
  • A bibliography with citations from the body of the paper (at least 5)

LaTeX tips

Here is an Overleaf template (go to "Menu">"Copy Project") that gives examples of most of the elements you may wish/need to use in an academic manuscript. Please see this Stack Exchange article regarding the correct pronunciation of ``LaTeX''. In particular note the following

  • Use ` and `` for opening quotes.
  • Be precise in using curly braces for denoting sets and parentheses for denoting lists.
  • Every figure included in the manuscript must be referenced from the body of the text. References should be close to where figures appear. The word ``figure'' should be capitalized when referencing a particular figure. If a figure does not appear on the page you would like it to appear on, I find the easiest way to solve that is to move the code for the figure up or down in the LaTeX source document.
  • Make sure to use math mode where appropriate.
  • is an excellent resource for constructing LaTeX tables.
  • Use the url package to make url's hyperlinks.

Presentation tips

The following are tips for presenting during project presentations, defense presentations, or conference presentations. When appropriate, use ISU branded design templates.

  • Be aware that it is common practice during a thesis defense for the advisor to avoid helping the advisee answer other committee members' questions. This is to allow the advisee to demonstrate what they know independent of their advisor.
  • When asked a question:
    • If you are asked a question that you don't understand, it's not necessarily your fault. People ask bad questions. Ask them to clarify.
    • It's okay to say, "let me think for a second" or "I don't know" or "Let me give that some thought and I can circle back to you".
    • Avoid the temptation of trying to give the answer that you think that they want and answer honestly.
    • If asked a question you don't know the answer to, consider shifting to a related question that you do know the answer to.
  • Regarding slides:
    • A good rule of thumb is to plan one slide per minute (e.g., 10-min presentation = 10 slides)
    • Use slide numbers so that people can reference them easier when subsequently asking questions.
    • Keep a consistent look and feel.
    • Show, don’t tell. Aim to follow the rule of thirds: ⅓ text, ⅓ graphics, ⅓ white space.
    • Fonts should be no smaller than 18 pt for readability.
    • Follow all relevant tips from the general writing tips section above.
    • Use bold to highlight important terms or ideas.
    • Use simple and appropriate animations to help improve explainability.
    • Include citations at the bottom of slides as appropriate.