Notes on Scientific Writing

Connelly Barnes
Public domain, 2016

I believe a well-written technical paper has the properties described in this document.

I have divided these properties into four broad categories: audience and organization, figures, writing style, and details. I now discuss each topic in turn.

Audience and organization
  1. Craft the introduction with great care. Experienced reviewers can often tell if a paper will be a worthwhile read by the end of the first page. Thus, the introduction should have a strong motivation explaining in fairly nontechnical manner why the reader should care about the problem. The technical contribution of the paper should also be clearly explained, but as an "elevator pitch" so that even non-specialists can appreciate the contributions.
  2. The paper should be clear to general audiences in the introduction and conclusion. For example, suppose one is writing a computer science paper in the area of computer graphics. The concepts explained in the introduction and conclusion of the paper should be fairly clear even to people who have only general knowledge of computer science, and only limited knowledge of graphics.
  3. The body of the paper should be clear to specialized audiences. For example, suppose one is writing a computer graphics paper. Then graphics researchers working on similar research topics could be considered a specialized audience.
  4. The paper should be well-organized. Each paper should begin with an introduction describing what will happen in the paper in the order that it will happen. Each section should begin with an overview paragraph describing what will happen in the section, in the correct order. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence surveying what will happen in that paragraph.
  5. Market one's technique effectively, but do not over- or under-claim. Do point out the strong points of one's technique, particularly in the introduction. However, avoid grandiose claims. For example, do not claim to solve X and Y, if X is solved but Y is only half-solved.

  1. Have illustrative figures for any ideas that are hard to follow when described textually. It should generally be possible to understand a figure by reading only its caption. Ideally, someone should be able to obtain a high-level understanding of the paper by only looking at the figures of the paper.
  2. Figures should be simple, clear, and aesthetically pleasing. Use color schemes that are consistent, attractive, and accessible to color-blind reviewers.

Writing style
  1. Be concise. So long as all the important ideas are communicated in a clear manner, it is best to make descriptions as short and simple as possible. Avoid excessively long and run-on sentences.
  2. Use simple English vocabulary. Avoid unusual English vocabulary words such as "obstreperous," because both non-native speakers and some native speakers will not be able to understand such words.
  3. Avoid informal language, such as slang. Avoid contractions such as "can't." Instead, write out the full word: "cannot."
  4. Use consistent tenses for verbs. A general rule is to prefer the present tense except when reporting in the evaluation section results that were gathered from experiments [1].
  5. Use active voice [2]. Instead of writing "we make an examination of X," write "we examine X."
  6. Always use spell check. Do not require mentors or reviewers to waste their valuable time on fixing spelling errors that can be fixed trivially by technology. If one is not a native speaker, also have the paper be edited for grammatical correctness by a native speaker before submission.

  1. Define notation and technical terms clearly when they are first used, for any terms that are not in widespread use.
  2. Use consistent terminology. For example, if we define the terminology "image pipeline," the term "image pipeline" should be used, not other variations such as "image processing pipeline."
  3. Use consistent fonts. In technical writing this generally means to use the same serif font with consistent sizing throughout the document, including in plots and tables. However, if the style guide calls for sans-serif, then consistently use sans-serif.