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Guidelines for Writing Papers

This page is meant to assemble some information and guidelines that students may consult about writing papers. It is not anywhere near complete yet. Comments are welcome.

You will be called upon to write "papers" for much of your professional life. The "papers" - using the term broadly - may be as diverse as term papers, qualifier papers, theses, research papers, surveys, white papers, business plans, and design outlines. The remarks below are mostly geared toward the first several - more academic - categories, but some of the remarks would apply to any professional writing that you do.

Writing a paper should not be viewed as a chore, but as an opportunity to organize your thoughts. Often, organizing your thoughts - even if about well-known topics - is a good service. Even if no one else benefits from this exercise, you will. You will often hear people say that they did good research on some topic, but could never get around to writing it up. They may be sincere, but they would often be mistaken. In most cases, the fact that they didn't write it up means that they never quite completed the work. In writing it up, they would probably have realized what holes there were in their arguments - the experiments they didn't run or the theorems they didn't formulate and prove.

The importance of writing in good research is one of the reasons for the CSC graduate faculty's decision to change the format of the Ph.D. qualifier exams (aka written prelims). Official information on the CSC Ph.D. exams is available here.

Originality of Presentation

One of the main claims that you make about anything you write is that it is original. Even if the paper is a description of other people's work, the paper itself should be an original creation. If you include material written by others, it should be identified in some way and credited to the source. Not doing so may be considered plagiarism (Latin for kidnapping), which is one of worst charges to be levied against your work. A lack of knowledge of English is not a sufficiently good reason for plagiarism.

Quoting others verbatim is usually not a good idea anyway. First, what you say or write is for a purpose, and your purpose in your paper is very likely different from the original authors' purpose in their paper. Therefore, even when you present their ideas, you have to present them in a way that fits with what you are talking about now. Second, mixing different styles of writing and interrupting your flow with lots of quotations does not help your reader.

Indeed, there is usually little reason to quote others verbatim, unless they have an especially pithy saying that you must include or they made some especially specious claim that you must present as is before you tear it apart. For the above reasons, quotations must and can usually be replaced by paraphrases (see below).

Originality of Content

Often, your paper should not only be original in its presentation, but also in its content. A research paper is meant to be original in this sense. For this reason, you should make sure that the main ideas described in the paper - its main contributions - originated with you. Even if you got the idea by yourself, you are expected to make a reasonable effort to determine whether others had the same idea before.

Of course, not every idea in a paper will be - or should be - original. You will almost always build on the work of others. However, you should describe the work you build on. If you do it in your own words, it is called a paraphrasing and is generally acceptable. By the way, it is not acceptable to simply reorder some bullet items, or make minor grammatical changes like converting a sentence in the active voice to one in the passive voice.

Unless the work being described or paraphrased is well-known - that is, part of the "folklore" - you should credit the people with whom it originated. In general, as topics become better known, you should cite expository writings describing them, e.g., textbooks, handbooks, encyclopedias, or survey articles. For topics that are relatively recent, it is better to credit the originators directly.

Value Added

Research writing is more than just a narrative of the steps you took, but includes some assessment or evaluation of the ideas you proposed and developed.

You should consider the value added by your paper - its contribution. This could be an original scientific content (see above), or a novel synthesis or analysis of existing ideas. Often, the two go together. If your paper's value added is in its original content, there would usually be some problem that your approach can solve or some phenomenon your theory can explain or predict. If your paper's value added is in a novel synthesis or analysis, then maybe you have motivated a new way of looking at problems or existing solutions.

Quality of Presentation

There are a number of aspects to a good presentation. These especially include organization and the quality of the prose. Several of the resources listed below address these issues. You should consult some if not all of them. Moreover, you should spell check and proof read your papers. In particular, when you read what you wrote several days after you wrote it, you will often discover a number of unclarities and ambiguities that weren't apparent earlier.