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Writing Advice

As I’m ramping up for the CHI deadline once again, I find myself not only writing, but teaching about writing. I was lucky enough to learn writing from some experts during graduate school, and have had a lot of practice since. This year, in response partly to a request from my students, I’m trying to put excerpts that feel like nuggets I’ve repeated many times all in one place. So here are some common writing issues that I’m commenting on in CHI papers this year (in no particular order):

Introduction: What is the main promise, obstacle, and solution of the paper, at the level that you address it? I.e. don’t tell me that cats would be better off if their owners could only be more subservient (promise), cat owners don’t know what their cats want from them (obstacle) and we contribute a tool that helps cats and cat owners communicate (solution). In addition to being too high level, the promise and the obstacle don’t even entirely match up. Instead, tell me the specific communication problem you are probably working on (such as cats needing their litter box cleaned right away being fastidious), the specific obstacle (owners tend to place it where they can’t smell it)  and the specific solution (a litter box smell sensor smart phone app?). Then generalize (this is an instance of better cat/owner communication etc etc). I’ve only been a cat owner for less than a year, so those of you who know cats better can probably think of a better example :).

Section structure: Every section needs some sort of story, which you should lay out in an overview paragraph (if you feel your text is redundant, fix that later, first get the goals down in overview form). Then there’s the section meat, and hopefully something at the end about what we learned. Not all that dissimilar from the whole paper. Every paragraph needs the same thing. Something along the lines of why the paragraph exists (i.e. a topic sentence that ties to the rest of the section in some way), the meat, and then an ending (what we learned). Again, redundancy is better at first and then you can streamline.

Related work: Each related work paragraph should start with a topic statement explaining what it is about (presumably with respect to those topics since you have established them as important). If there are other things you cover in related work, explain what they are and why you cover them in the paragraph where you touch on them. You might also try to end each related work paragraph with a summary sentence that restates the major benefit and open questions left by the work you just described. This should not be about your research, just about the gaps that are present.

Vocabulary: Papers often have jargon in them. For those of you who have a tendency to use too much jargon, pick a small number of new terms you will use, introduce them, and then use them consistently. For those of you who have a tendency to use too little jargon (i.e., if you find yourself saying ‘our model’ even when there are three different ones in your paper), follow the same advice :).

Keep a list of your writing quirks, whatever they are, as your editors uncover them for you. Inconsistent use of -? Lack of italics on latin? Forget to check that your reference program didn’t introduce errors? Excess word phrases such as ‘in order to’? When you get comments about wording, spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, and formatting add them to a hit list of things you spend 10 minutes checking before you send out each draft (and especially before you submit!). This will make life much easier for your reviewers.

Cutting … that should probably be a whole separate post. Just remember that more concise writing is usually better writing, so you almost always should cut words before content.

Niggles: I always assume that if I have a niggle, so will my reviewers (kind of how if one student asks something in class, probably others have the same question). So if you have a niggle of a doubt about anything, add a comment to your paper, or try to address it, or talk it over with someone.

I’m sure I will have more, but this is a start (and feel free to add your own ideas in the comments).

(Photo credit threecheersformcr_xo@Flickr)