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How to write a great research paper. Simon Peyton Jones Microsoft Research, Cambridge with amendments/additions by Mike Hicks, U. Maryland. Writing papers is a skill. Many papers are badly written Good writing is a skill you can learn It’s a skill that is worth learning:

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how to write a great research paper

How to write a great research paper

Simon Peyton Jones

Microsoft Research, Cambridge

with amendments/additions by

Mike Hicks, U. Maryland

writing papers is a skill
Writing papers is a skill
  • Many papers are badly written
  • Good writing is a skill you can learn
  • It’s a skill that is worth learning:
    • You will get more brownie points (more papers accepted etc)
    • Your ideas will have more impact
    • You will have better ideas

Increasing importance

writing papers model 1
Writing papers: model 1


Do research

Write paper

writing papers provocative model 2
Writing papers: (provocative) model 2


Do research

Write paper

  • Forces us to be clear, focused
  • Crystallises what we don’t understand
  • Opens the way to dialogue with others: reality check, critique, and collaboration


Write paper

Do research

do not be intimidated
Do not be intimidated

Fallacy You need to have a fantastic idea before you can start to write a paper.

Write a paper, and give a talk, about any idea, no matter how weedy and insignificant it may seem to you

Amended by mwh, 11/21/07

do not be intimidated1
Do not be intimidated
  • Writing the paper is how you develop the idea in the first place
  • It usually turns out to be more interesting and challenging that it seemed at first
  • Writing about it also helps you understand the problem space better
    • Better to solve a real problem than to design a solution looking for one

Amended by mwh, 11/21/07

why bother
Why bother?

Good papers and talks are a fundamental part of research excellence


we write papers and give talks mainly to impress others, gain recognition, and get promoted

papers communicate ideas
Papers communicate ideas
  • Your goal: to infect the mind of your reader with your idea, like a virus
  • Papers are far more durable than programs (think Mozart)

The greatest ideas are (literally) worthless if you keep them to yourself

paper writing is teaching
Paper writing is teaching
  • It is useful to think that you are teaching your reader your idea
    • What you did
    • Why it’s important
    • How it works
  • Well-written papers contribute more than just their described results
    • Readers understand the topic better

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

the idea
The Idea


A re-usable insight,

useful to the reader

  • Figure out what your idea is
  • Make certain that the reader is in no doubt what the idea is. Be 100% explicit:
    • “The main idea of this paper is....”
    • “In this section we present the main contributions of the paper.”
  • Many papers contain good ideas, but do not distil what they are.
one ping
One ping
  • Your paper should have just one “ping”: one clear, sharp idea
  • Read your paper again: can you hear the “ping”?
  • You may not know exactly what the ping is when you start writing; but you must know when you finish
  • If you have lots of ideas, write lots of papers (but beware of producing LPU’s)

Thanks to Joe Touch for “one ping”

the purpose of your paper is not
The purpose of your paper is not...

To describe the WizWoz system

  • Your reader does not have a WizWoz
  • She is primarily interested in re-usable brain-stuff, not executable artefacts
your narrative flow
Your narrative flow

I wish I knew how to solve that!

  • Here is a problem
  • It’s an interesting problem
  • It’s an unsolved problem
  • Here is my idea
  • My idea works (details, data)
  • Here’s how my idea compares to other people’s approaches

I see how that works. Ingenious!

characterizing your reader
Characterizing your reader
  • What do you assume of your reader?
    • Technical knowledge
    • Preconceptions/attitude
    • Interests
  • As a proxy, consider the intended venue
    • Who is on the PC? What work do they do?
    • What are the topics and assumptions of papers previously published here?

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

structure conference paper
Structure (conference paper)
  • Title (1000 readers)
  • Abstract (4 sentences, 100 readers)
  • Introduction (1 page, 100 readers)
  • The problem (1 page, 10 readers)
  • My idea (2 pages, 10 readers)
  • The details (5 pages, 3 readers)
  • Related work (1-2 pages, 10 readers)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)
the abstract
The abstract
  • Should be brief, not assume too much, and highlight items of importance
  • Four sentences [Kent Beck]
    • State the problem
    • Say why it’s an interesting problem
    • Say what your solution achieves
    • Say what follows from your solution
  • I usually write the abstract last

Amended by mwh, 11/21/07

  • Many papers are badly written and hard to understand
  • This is a pity, because their good ideas may go unappreciated
  • Following simple guidelines can dramatically improve the quality of your papers
  • Your work will be used more, and the feedback you get from others will in turn improve your research
deviating from the ideal
Deviating from the ideal
  • The abstract can be longer if there is a assumed reader-specific purpose
    • Expand on the problem context
    • Brief recap of prior results
    • Indicate several results (e.g., one sentence per result)
  • Remember, the goal is to get the reader to read the introduction …

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

  • Abstract (4 sentences)
  • Introduction (1 page)
  • The problem (1 page)
  • My idea (2 pages)
  • The details (5 pages)
  • Related work (1-2 pages)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)
the introduction 1 page



The introduction (1 page)
  • Describe the problem

What is the broader context?

What is the particular problem?

- Why is it interesting?

  • State your contributions

What is new? (novelty)

Why is it useful? (features of your solution)

How do you know? (evaluation)

Assume reader is general attendee of target conference

Amended by mwh, 11/21/07

describe the problem
Describe the problem

Use an example to introduce the problem

state your contributions
State your contributions
  • Write the list of contributions first
  • The list of contributions drives the entire paper: the paper substantiates the claims you have made
  • Reader thinks “gosh, if they can really deliver this, that’d be exciting. I’d better read on”
    • Follows style of claim then evidence
      • More on this later

Amended by mwh, 11/21/07

state your contributions1
State your contributions

Bulleted list of contributions

Do not leave the reader to guess what your contributions are!

no rest of this paper is
No “rest of this paper is...”
  • Not:
  • Instead, use forward references from the narrative in the introduction. The introduction (including the contributions) should survey the whole paper, and therefore forward reference every important part.

“The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Section 2 introduces the problem. Section 3 ... Finally, Section 8 concludes”.

lengthening the introduction
Lengthening the introduction
  • The introduction can be viewed a capsule of the entire paper
    • The context, the problem, your idea, and its evaluation
  • You could shorten or avoid the problem and idea sections and have a longer intro
    • E.g., they are subsections of the intro
    • But beware of taking too long to get to the point; reader will get frustrated

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

  • Abstract (4 sentences)
  • Introduction (1 page)
  • Related work
  • The problem (1 page)
  • My idea (2 pages)
  • The details (5 pages)
  • Related work (1-2 pages)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)
no related work yet
No related work yet!

Related work

Your reader

Your idea

We adopt the notion of transaction from Brown [1], as modified for distributed systems by White [2], using the four-phase interpolation algorithm of Green [3]. Our work differs from White in our advanced revocation protocol, which deals with the case of priority inversion as described by Yellow [4].

no related work yet1
No related work yet

I feel stupid

  • Problem 1: the reader knows nothing about the problem yet; so your (carefully trimmed) description of various technical tradeoffs is absolutely incomprehensible
  • Problem 2: describing alternative approaches gets between the reader and your idea

I feel tired

what if the problem is well known
What if the problem is well-known?
  • Your idea could be derailed by a reader’s preconception that the problem is
    • Solved
    • Impossible
    • Just like someone else’s approach they know about
    • Presenting related work after the introduction can mitigate this problem
  • So refute these points with a forward reference the related work section
    • People expect you to compare to related work, so they will give you the benefit of the doubt

Added by mwh, 11/27/06

  • Abstract (4 sentences)
  • Introduction (1 page)
  • The problem (1 page)
  • My idea (2 pages)
  • The details (5 pages)
  • Related work (1-2 pages)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)
presenting the idea
Presenting the idea

3. The idea

Consider a bifircuated semi-lattice D, over a hyper-modulated signature S. Suppose pi is an element of D. Then we know for every such pi there is an epi-modulus j, such that pj < pi.

  • Sounds impressive...but
  • Sends readers to sleep
  • In a paper you MUST provide the details, but FIRST convey the idea
presenting the idea1
Presenting the idea
  • Explain it as if you were speaking to someone using a whiteboard
  • Conveying the intuition is primary, not secondary
  • Once your reader has the intuition, she can follow the details (but not vice versa)
  • Even if she skips the details, she still takes away something valuable
putting the reader first
Putting the reader first
  • Do not recapitulate your personal journey of discovery. This route may be soaked with your blood, but that is not interesting to the reader.
  • Instead, choose the most direct route to the idea.
the payload of your paper
The payload of your paper

Introduce the problem, and your idea, using


and only then present the general case

using examples
Using examples

The Simon PJ question: is there any typewriter font?

Example right away

the running example stone
The Running Example [Stone]
  • Understanding an example is an intellectual investment
    • Make your examples simple enough to understand but still convincing
    • Aim for reuse
  • Ideal
    • First concept
    • Example of first concept
    • Next concept
    • Example embellished
    • Next concept followed by more embellishment …

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

first example
First Example

Simplest: correct usage

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

second example
Second Example

Extending to show incorrect usage

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

third example
Third Example

Further complication from the preprocessor

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

non ideal approaches to examples
First concept

Next concept

Next concept

Example of first concept

Example embellished

More embellishment

Leaves reader unsure between concepts

First concept

Example of concept

Next concept

Different example

Next concept

Yet another example

Extra effort to understand each example

Non-ideal approaches to examples

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

the details evidence
The details: evidence
  • Your introduction makes claims
  • The body of the paper provides evidence to support each claim
  • Check each claim in the introduction, identify the evidence, and forward-reference it from the claim
  • Evidence can be: analysis and comparison, theorems, measurements, case studies
twice told different ways stone
Twice told, different ways [Stone]
  • Clarify tricky concepts by describing them twice
    • Picture with text
    • Text with equation
    • Methodology with example

f(x) = i w(i)  B(i)

That is, f(x) is a weighted sum of Bs.

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

general idea claim then evidence
General idea: Claim then Evidence
  • The claim/evidence structure should occur throughout the paper
    • Top-down, as opposed to bottom-up, organization
  • Each section should begin with a claim and/or summary
    • “This section proves that the boobaz approach is sound. To do this …”
    • “This section shows that boobaz performs well under a typical workload. We gathered …”
    • “Boobaz is distinct from other approaches to X primarily in that …”
  • Same with subsections, even paragraphs

Added by mwh, 11/27/06

wrong facts then conclusions
Wrong: Facts then Conclusions
  • Temptation: present facts, then assess them
    • Like a mystery story: learn the facts of the crime, and then discover who did it!
  • The problem: you don’t want the reader to guess, you want to tell her what’s important! Readers get frustrated without direction
  • Strive to create “mental boxes” by foreshadowing your argument. Will fill in these boxes as you go [Harold Stone]

Added by mwh, 11/27/06

creating mental boxes
Creating Mental Boxes


A general substrate interface

Sub-box 1:


Sub-box 2:


Added by mwh, 11/21/07

  • Abstract (4 sentences)
  • Introduction (1 page)
  • The problem (1 page)
  • My idea (2 pages)
  • The details (5 pages)
  • Related work (1-2 pages)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)
related work
Related work

Fallacy To make my work look good, I have to make other people’s work look bad

the truth credit is not like money
The truth: credit is not like money

Giving credit to others does not diminish the credit you get from your paper

  • Warmly acknowledge those who helped you
  • Be generous to the competition. “In his inspiring paper [Foo98] Foogle shows.... We develop his foundation in the following ways...”
  • Be fair to your own work, too - acknowledge limitations and justify your contributions
credit is not like money
Credit is not like money

Failing to give credit to others can kill your paper

  • If you imply that an idea is yours, and the referee knows it is not, then either
    • You don’t know that it’s an old idea (bad)
    • You do know, but are pretending it’s yours (very bad)
big picture advancing knowledge
Big picture: advancing knowledge
  • Strive to be precise in your comparisons
  • Best: use terminology you have used to explain your approach to explain related approaches. Crystallize the differences.
    • Helps readers, helps you
  • Poor: focus on superficial differences between yours and related approaches
    • Inhibits knowledge of the true state of the art
  • Discussion of related work should be a contribution in its own right

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

  • Abstract (4 sentences)
  • Introduction (1 page)
  • The problem (1 page)
  • My idea (2 pages)
  • The details (5 pages)
  • Related work (1-2 pages)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)
the process
The process
  • Start early. Very early.
    • Hastily-written papers get rejected.
    • Papers are like wine: they need time to mature
  • Collaborate
  • Use CVS (SVN) to support collaboration
getting help
Getting help

Get your paper read by as many friendly guinea pigs as possible

  • Experts are good
  • Non-experts are also very good
  • Each reader can only read your paper for the first time once! So use them carefully
  • Explain carefully what you want (“I got lost here” is much more important than “Jarva is mis-spelt”.)
getting expert help
Getting expert help
  • A good plan: when you think you are done, send the draft to the competition saying “could you help me ensure that I describe your work fairly?”.
  • Often they will respond with helpful critique (they are interested in the area)
  • They are likely to be your referees anyway, so getting their comments or criticism up front is Jolly Good.
listening to your reviewers
Listening to your reviewers

Treat every review like gold dust

Be (truly) grateful for criticism as well as praise

This is really, really, really hard

But it’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, reallyimportant

listening to your reviewers1
Listening to your reviewers
  • Read every criticism as a positive suggestion for something you could explain more clearly
  • DO NOT respond “you stupid person, I meant X”. Fix the paper so that X is apparent even to the stupidest reader.
  • Thank them warmly. They have given up their time for you.
basic stuff
Basic stuff
  • Submit by the deadline
  • Keep to the length restrictions
    • Do not narrow the margins
    • Do not use 6pt font
    • On occasion, supply supporting evidence (e.g. experimental data, or a written-out proof) in an appendix
  • Always use a spell checker
visual structure
Give strong visual structure to your paper using

sections and sub-sections



laid-out code

Find out how to draw pictures, and use them

Visual structure
the body of a section stone
The Body of a Section [Stone]
  • What happens here
  • How this fits (optional)
  • The results
  • Transition

In this section …

This section continues the derivation by …

Thus far, the discussion has … Here, …

Added by mwh, 11/21/07

use the active voice
Use the active voice

The passive voice is “respectable” but it DEADENS your paper. Avoid it at all costs.

“We” = you and the reader

“We” = the authors

“You” = the reader

  • References are annotations, not nouns
    • Sentence should still make sense if you remove the references
  • Castelli and Brown [3] showed that …
    • Not[3] showed that …
  • Some prior systems are unsound [3,4].
    • NotThe systems presented in [3,4] are unsound.

Added by mwh, 11/21/07


If you remember nothing else:

  • Identify your key idea
  • Make your contributions explicit
  • Use examples
further reading
Further Reading

Mechanics and style

Chaps. 9,10: organization

Chaps 1-8: mechanics, style

Much general advice:

Added by mwh, 11/21/07