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Editing Advice (Highly Idiosyncratic)

Munindar P. Singh

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance from here

This page is meant for my advisees. It enumerates several grammatical, stylistic, and other habits I have acquired about writing, editing, and presenting over the years. They may seem idiosyncratic in some cases, but often there is method to my madness. Even when these editing habits are idiosyncratic, I will insist on them.

To my advisees who might find these demands onerous: These are merely elements of the pursuit of perfection. I want you to develop an eye for detail. I should point out that I learned most of the following simply from observing good practices, not from being told. The fact that I am telling you in considerable detail is a great favor I do you: You should be so happy to learn these good practices that you wouldn't think of questioning any of the following recommendations now :-). (Seriously, though, I am surprised that I have to point you to this page again and again.)

An important observation: You simply have no choice but to learn to get your grammar and the rest of writing straight. You cannot outsource it. In particular, professional dissertation editors, who make a business of fixing students' writing, often leave some presentational errors and, worse, introduce technical errors and ambiguities. I am saying this on an evidence of one for a dissertation editor that a student of mine used plus several instances of professional editing I have seen my own and others' writing go through. Professional editors can help, but you remain responsible for what you write.

This page mixes in general advice and the expectations I have regarding any drafts or papers that I am handed by a student. I frequently notice these being violated by students. The violations distract me from scientific discussions which, after all, is what we should concentrate on. I hope to get these points better organized as I get the time. Your comments are welcome.

  1. Word Processing

    1. Use LaTeX and BibTeX for any serious writing.
    2. Use the times package for easy conversion to pdf. To do so, place the following:
      in the preamble.
    3. Place two spaces between sentences in the same para. The number of spaces doesn't affect the output in LaTeX but it will make our joint editing simpler.
    4. Use emacs if possible for text-preparation: it simplifies a lot of the editing.
    5. I have recently had the occasion to use an Eclipse plugin for latex. It is not bad at all. If you use it, I suggest you set the defaults so that line breaks occur at 72 characters and there are two spaces between sentences.
    6. Spell check the whole document; then proof read it. It is rude to off-load this task on your readers (unless as a special request to proof read some writing after you have already proof read it yourself). Some reviewers will be quite offended to see bugs that you should have caught.
    7. Always include the title, your name, and date on the title page.
    8. Number all pages, preferably at bottom center.
    9. For generic drafts use 12pt font with textwidth of 6.5 inches and textheight of 8.5 in. For submissions, use whatever format is required for submission.
    10. Remember to acknowledge any financial support you receive through the university. Ask me for the numbers (IDs) of any grants that may have supported your work. Thank others who gave you comments. Don't thank your coauthors! If you thank some people, spell their names correctly, and use their given names and last names.
  2. General Editing

    1. Place whitespace immediately before an open parenthesis or brace or bracket, but not immediately after. Citations typically come out in brackets, so leave a space before each of them.
    2. Don't place whitespace immediately before a closing parenthesis or brace or bracket, but do place a space or a punctuation character immediately after. Citations typically come out in brackets, so leave a space or a punctuation character after each of them.
    3. Place whitespace immediately after a comma, a colon, a period, or a semicolon, but none immediately before them.
    4. Don't use footnotes. Decide if it is worth stating in the main text; if not, don't say it.
    5. (Mike Huhns) Place a table's caption at the top.
    6. Place a figure's caption at the bottom. Don't also have a caption within the figure—a risk when you draw it separately and are including it in the paper. For separate figure files, name the files systematically.
    7. Write all captions in sentence case: first letter (of first word) upper case, all else lower case. End with a period (change of mind from my previous guidance). As an aside, you can have long captions to explain a figure right there, although generally you would put the explanations in the main text.
    8. Almost always, you should refer to a figure from the main text. The publication Nature doesn't do that, but most will require it. It is a good idea even if not required—otherwise your readers may be confused about why you included a certain figure.
    9. Use a single closing quote (') to mean an apostrophe, e.g., "Bob's car." An opening quote does not an apostrophe make.
    10. Don't use too many contractions. In particular, never use contractions such as "we'll," "I'll," "we've," and so on (not even in a draft paper). For more formal work, don't even use "don't," "doesn't," "can't," and "won't." And don't ever use "u" and "ur" in any writing where there is the slightest risk that I might see it.
    11. Don't use numerals in text for the smaller numbers. For example, don't say "the agent talks to 3 other agents." Some publications use words for numbers ten and smaller. That is a good strategy. Conversely, don't spell out a large number such as 157. It would be quite odd to read "our experiments involved one hundred fifty seven agents."
    12. Write numbers larger than or equal to 1,000 with a comma at the thousands place and in positions at multiples of three. But write years without commas.
    13. Don't begin a sentence with a lowercase letter.
      • For example, if you are saying something about a technical word or a word in your program that begins with a lowercase letter, try to work in another word in front of it. For example, try not to write "serviceProvider refers to ..."; instead write "The serviceProvider field refers to ..." I might accept something like "eBay" where it is an established brand name though it would always jar. Uniformity throughout a document is key even in such a case.
      • For example, if you are referring to a work by an author whose last name begins with a particle such as "van" or "de" capitalize it when you place it at the beginning of a sentence, as in "Van Riemsdijk et al. [2017] show that, in contrast, ..." and sometimes (for Dutch names especially) even in the middle of a sentence "In contrast, Van Riemsdijk et al. [2017] show that ..." unless we also include the author's first name, which we would rarely if ever do.
    14. Don't begin a sentence with a numeral.
    15. Don't begin a sentence with a citation.
    16. Don't begin a sentence with a bracket or parenthesis.
    17. When introducing a new term, don't use quotes; italicize the term instead. In general, the fewer the quoted terms the better.
    18. In US usage, quotes apply in a noncontext free manner with respect to commas and periods. For example, you would write ``this.'' and ``this,'' even though these are not context free in the sense of formal grammar. The idea is that reducing the white space visible above the punctuation makes the text look better, at least once you get used to it.
    19. In the rare case where you must use a footnote, do not place its superscript (in the main text) just before a comma or period. This too is US usage (see above for quotes).
    20. In the rare case where you must use a footnote, do not place its superscript (in the main text) just after a space or anything that translates to a space, e.g., as a line break does in Latex.
    21. List three or more items with commas all the way: "A, B, and C" but not "A, B and C" unless B and C together are one thing. In that case, in some situations it might be better to phrase this as "B and C, and A" (which deviates from this rule a little by using a comma even when there are two items involved).
    22. Go easy on the subscripts. LaTeX makes it attractive to write complex formulas, but complex formulas are never attractive. Don't over-complicate your notation.
    23. Keep simple line-drawings in figures—clutter arises easily if one is not careful and is not easy on the reader. Boxes with shadings rarely look good in a paper—too industrial and too much like a presentation. Scanned in figures are rarely appropriate except for early drafts—and for early drafts even scanned in hand drawings should be fine.
    24. Use the same typeface for text in figures as in the main paper (times works well for both—even if they are slight variants of each other).
    25. Use a smallish type size for the text in figures, e.g., 10 or 9pt. The main text of your paper will range from 10pt to 12pt, so 10pt in the figures will be ideal.
    26. Draw figures to be about 3.25in wide or about 5.5in wide. The former can fit in a two column format and save space. Doing so is often a consideration for most conference submissions. The latter can fit in the Springer Lecture Notes format, also a common format for computer science publications.
    27. Color is fine, but relying on it is risky, because many readers will print your paper on black-and-white printers. So you can't exploit color in the text (e.g., by saying, "the green box") and you ought to check that the greyscale version of the color is OK. Also, remember that some readers are color blind. However, color is useful when available, because it can highlight some relationships—so use color but make sure the paper is comprehensible in greyscale, e.g., by adding another feature such as dashes.
    28. For an in-text formula, put any ending parentheses on the same line as the rest of the formula—i.e., split the formula somewhere other than at the last parenthesis or even the last few parentheses.
    29. Treat all items in the same item list alike in terms of capitalization.
    30. Capitalize sections, subsections, subsubsections (i.e., make first letter of all big or important words upper case).
    31. When referring to a section, figure, table, chapter, algorithm, or protocol, capitalize it, e.g., "Figure 4 illustrates this point," but not otherwise, e.g., "the following figures show ..."
    32. Use sentence case for paragraph headings and end each heading with a period.
    33. End all items in an item list with or without periods (preferably with).
    34. A document node (e.g., section) should either have no children (e.g., subsections) or have two or more children.
    35. Item lists and enumerations should have two or more entries.
    36. Use emphasis fonts, e.g., italics or bold, only for a few words or phrases.
    37. I generally prefer to leave names of disciplines such as "computer science" in lower case, instead of "Computer Science." My rationale is that too many capitalized words spoil readability. Further, capitalization makes concepts appear more grand than they are.
    38. Capitalize the following words carefully, also in your bibliographic entries:
      1. Internet.
      2. Web.
      3. eBay.
      4. tModel.
    39. When a whole sentence is parenthetical, the period that ends the sentence goes within the parentheses.
  3. LaTeX-Specific Points

    1. Write an en-dash as "--" with no spaces on either end. Thus "11--23" will appear as "11–23" and that's how you want it. Likewise, write an em-dash as "---" with no spaces on either end.
    2. Use quotes as ``correct''—LaTeX will then print them correctly, although they might look weird on a browser. By contrast, LaTeX will print "wrong" as having closing quotes on either side.
    3. Encapsulated postscript (eps) fits in well into LaTeX. You can generate eps from drawing tools such as Visio. You can also convert postscript into eps through ghostview.
    4. You can also embed pdf into LaTeX if you use pdflatex. pdflatex doesn't take postscript, though. A simple strategy is to generate eps and convert it to pdf via the tool epstopdf. In your latex files, include the figure via \includegraphics, which is defined in the graphicx package. Do not specify the file extension. Then latex picks up with eps version whereas pdflatex picks up the pdf version of the figure.
    5. For a figure file to be included in LaTeX, make its name match the internal LaTeX label for the figure. Make the file name an English word (or words separated by hyphens), so the file name can spell check properly.
    6. Insert a space in references: "Chapter3 discusses" => "Chapter 3 discusses." In LaTeX, this means you would place a tilde before any \ref, as in "Section~\ref{sec-foo}."
    7. Don't use hard constants for internal references in the paper. Use something like "Section~\ref{sec-foo} shows," which should expand to the correct section number and with a space to boot. Likewise, "Figure~\ref{fig-foo} illustrates ..." The tilde (~) is a so-called tie in LaTeX. It forces the characters of either side of it to be typeset with an intervening space but on the same line. Using it helps avoid poor typesetting, e.g., where the last word of a line or page is "Figure" and the first word of the next line or page is "4."
    8. Avoid expressions such as "the following figures" or "the above figures" because (1) LaTeX may place the figures differently than you expect when you edit the file or change the style and (2) you may move text around and suddenly find these implicit references (i.e., "above" and "following") to be out of whack.
    9. Where appropriate use \texttt{...} to place a term or expression in typewriter (aka teletype or tt) font. This is good for small code-like text. I have recently taken to using \textsf{...} for the above purposes—this yields narrower text and seems to typeset better than \texttt.
    10. Don't use math fonts for identifiers that are longer than a letter. That is, $FP$ is wrong. It shows up with a large gap between the F and the P. Instead use \emph{FP} or even \textit{FP} in normal text and \textit{FP} if you need to enclose it in a mathematical formula or another mathematical environment. When you need such an identifier as a subscript or superscript, enclose it in \mathrm as in $Q_{\mathrm{FP}}$.
    11. When you have identifiers for which you need numerals, such as agents A1 and A2, write these with subscripts as in $A_1$ and $A_2$. When you have multiword identifiers you will need additional markup to prevent the default Latex math font from kicking in. You might use $\textrm{ABC}_1$ or $\textit{ABC}_1$. Or, you might place the subscript alone in math as in ABC$_1$.
    12. For large formulas (with multiple subscripts), use \[ \] or other display modes in LaTeX to make sure they are large enough to read.
    13. In the Windows world, you can generate postscript by printing to file when the printer is set to one of the oldest Apple Laserwriters for which your PC has drivers. Apparently, the old Laserwriters used an old version of postscript, which is compatible with most tools. This process is somewhat cumbersome. I don't recommend it except as a last resort. (As of 2009, I haven't tried this in years.)
  4. Visio

    1. Make the grid visible (US units for convenience).
    2. Use boxes of a reasonably large size.
    3. Align all boxes on grid lines.
    4. Place all connectors (lines) on connection points.
    5. To that end, make connection points visible and insert connection points on box edges if you need to.
    6. You can copy the boxes and drums from my older diagrams for simplicity.
    7. Make sure the connectors go on the grid lines.
    8. A particular challenge is when you need two connectors to overlap (for example, when one class has two subclasses); Visio often makes one lower or higher than the others, and it takes some effort to align them on the grid lines.
    9. Magnify to 400% to check alignment.
    10. Generating EPS and PDF from Visio (and I suppose other such programs) isn't trivial any more. Some of the previous good methods don't work with Windows Vista and Windows 7. PrimoPDF works, but with a number of steps. In particular, you need to change its postscript option to Encapsulated PostScript and you need to print only the specific selection. This yields PDF, which I have sometimes needed to convert to EPS and back to PDF to use. (It wasn't always like this, but maybe I forgot some setting.)
  5. References

    1. Use BibTeX, of course. For some purposes, I use biblatex and biber, which too uses bibliography entries in the BibTeX format.
    2. Place your own bib entries in a separate file, ideally named your-first-name.bib, your-last-name.bib, or even your-eos-login-ID.bib (least preferred, since this ID won't generally be a name). Capitalize the file name so we can have a spell checker learn it.
    3. Do not copy over bib entries from my file into yours. Duplicate versions generate spurious warnings and are difficult to maintain. Periodically, I may want to clean up the entries you made and add them to one of my files. You have access to my files, of course.
    4. Do not hardcode your bibliography path into the LaTeX command for inserting a bibliography. Instead, use an environment variable that LaTeX uses to access the correct bibliography files. On Windows, this is the variable BIBINPUTS; using it enables us both to work on the same document without having to edit the path repeatedly.
    5. By default, use fullname references, readily generated using
      in the preamble and end of the LaTeX source files.
    6. When the required style is not compatible with the above, you can still include the names of authors in the main text so that it reads something like "Singh et al. [11] claim ...".
    7. To use BibTeX correctly, you must put each reference into an entry of the correct kind, e.g., @book, @article, @inproceedings, and others.
    8. Supply correct names for the publication forum (e.g., journal), appropriately capitalized. DBLP doesn't usually provide correct capitalizations.
    9. Supply page numbers.
    10. For collections, supply an editor; for proceedings you don't need to.
    11. For collections and books, supply a publisher. Use a short name for the publisher as in my bib file. Supply an address for the publisher as a city name; the state and country name are not needed for well-known cities, e.g., "Berlin" is good enough—you don't need "Berlin, Germany."
    12. Use full first names of authors (along with middle initials and full last name), not "G.B. Shaw" but "George B. Shaw" or even "George Bernard Shaw" (if, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author is known with his or her full middle name).
    13. For multiple authors or editors, BibTeX uses
      {First1 M1. Last1 and First2 M2. Last2 and First3 M3. Last3 and First4 M4. Last4}
      The correct entries are generated from the above syntax; by contrast, if you start with
      {First1 M1. Last1, First2 M2. Last2, First3 M3. Last3, and First4 M4. Last4}
      it acts as if you have two authors, one with a long, weird name. Good examples are in the bib files I post.
    14. First authors with names with suffixes must be treated specially; see my bib files; look for "Petrie, Jr.," for example.
    15. BibTeX, or rather the common BibTeX styles, convert all article and chapter titles in sentence case. This can mess up the capitalization of some words. To make sure that certain words (such as Internet) are capitalized or are written in mixed case (such as tModel), enclose the entire word in braces, e.g., {Internet}. In more detail,
           title = {Life on the {Internet}}
      If the bib style a publisher required were to force the entire title into uppercase, the above won't work, but I haven't encountered such a style. A safer style would be {I}nternet, but I don't like this because it makes checking spellings harder. An unacceptably poor style is to enclose the entire title in double braces, since doing so precludes BibTeX from changing the capitalization at all.
    16. For a version to be published, it is good practice to include BibTeX's output bibliography into the LaTeX file and post-edit it if necessary. Doing so has the benefit of freezing the bibliography as part of the document, even if you were to modify your bib files later.
  6. Notes on Writing

    1. Don't hesitate to get other students to comment on your work. They can help identify potential problems with the exposition or the content that you or I may not notice.
    2. Be willing to reorganize your paper and rewrite large parts of it. It is generally a bad idea to get attached to some phrasing. Mark Twain once recommended that authors should find their favorite sentence in whatever they wrote and delete it.
    3. See my page on Guidelines for Writing Papers.
    4. Reusing your own prose is potentially tricky. It is OK to share text between an externally submitted or published paper and an internal document (thesis, dissertation, written prelim, technical report). Specifically, a submission can be identical to a TR. However, there should not be two concurrent external submissions of the same material or a submission after a separate publication. It is OK to share across workshops and conferences, but a short note in the paper (indicating overlap) is appropriate.

      When you work on a new topic or have sufficiently new results, but with a similar motivation and technical framework as before, it is tempting to reuse old prose. In my experience, it is better to rewrite the motivation, because each (intended) target audience is different. For the technical framework, it might be OK to reuse older (debugged) descriptions as background with acknowledgment of previous publication. This assumes there are enough new results in the rest of the paper. The justification for reuse is that you can't be expected to invent, e.g., a new temporal logic, in each paper. Moreover, you can relate your new work more easily to the existing body of work by using the framework used in the existing work. Of course, this presumes your interesting results are not in the logic per se.