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Writing Process: From Idea to Final Submission
Step 0: Start Two Months in Advance
Writing a quality paper takes a significant amount of time. It’s not only a matter of getting the words on paper, but also a matter of working and re-working your idea until all of the imperfections are worked out.
Don’t wait until all of your programming and experimental work is done. Start the process of writing at least two months before the paper deadline. You can get the writing process started concurrently with your experimental work.
Step 1: Construct the Argument
Before writing in detail, first work out an argument that summarizes the paper in bullet points. Write out a sentence or two that that addresses each of the following issues briefly:
Write out your complete argument, and evaluate it critically before going any further. Are you really sure that your proposed solution addresses the stated problem? Does your proposed evaluation really measure the right things? Is your key idea (or evaluation) truly novel, relative to the related work? You may need to adjust one or the other until they match in scope. Practice stating your argument to multiple people (including your advisor) until it is bulletproof.
Step 2: Write the Outline
Once the argument is solid, then you are ready to start writing an outline. Write out the sections of the paper first, and then write one bullet point for each paragraph and the key idea in that paragraph. Include bullet points for figure and graph and what it is intended to convey.
Be ruthlessly consistent: Each section in the paper should correspond to a bullet point in your argument, in that order. Each paragraph in the introduction should correspond to a bullet point in your argument, in that order. Each sentence in your abstract should correspond to a bullet point in your argument, in that order.
Now go back to your advisor and go over the outline together to make sure it makes sense. If you find a problem with your argument at this point, then you need to fix it in the abstract and the introduction and the section structure, so that everything is consistent.
Step 3: Write the First Draft
Once the outline is complete and sound, then you can proceed to writing. Turn each bullet point in the outline into a full paragraph, each one five sentences or so. Don’t get stuck trying to express any single paragraph – just put some words onto the paper and more on to the next paragraph. You can come back and edit later.
Don’t go overboard using sub-sections and sub-subsections. The purpose and focus of each paragraph should be very clear from its topic sentence. Let the body of your text speak for itself.
Stop here and get feedback on your draft.
Step 4: Construct the Figures and Graphs
Great figures are critical to a paper – every paper needs detailed, explanatory figures that explain in detail how your system works. This takes time and attention to get right, just as your writing does. First start to draft a figure on paper or the whiteboard – this allows you to try different shapes and arrangements quickly before sitting down at the computer. Think about the aspect ratio of the figure: will it be roughly square, occupying a single column, or a double-wide figure stretching across two columns? Consider where you would like the reader’s attention to start, and how it will flow across the figure. Write out a key that explains the meaning of different shapes, line types, and so forth. Once you have something you like, then you can draft it using Google Drawings (or whatever tool you like) and then save the figure into the paper repository.
To present numeric data, get your raw data into a simple tabular form, and then plot it using gnuplot. Yes, use gnuplot: not Excel or Mathematica or Matlab or whatever. The big advantage of gnuplot is that it is simple, fast, and easy to script as part of an automatic makefile. This allows you to rapidly iterate on the details of a graph without starting over from scratch. Look at a variety of online examples to get a sense of the different kinds of displays that gnuplot can show. (http://gnuplot.info)
Some guidelines for both figures and graphs:
Stop here and get feedback on your figures and graphs.
Step 5: Editing and Proofreading
With your outline complete and all of your figures and graphs done, then you are about 50% done with your paper. There is still a lot of work to do to edit it to perfection. Start by printing it out on paper (yes, really, on paper) because that makes it easier to visualize the “big picture” of the paper. Read it from beginning to end, and mark up problem spots with a pen. After reading the whole paper, then go back and edit it on the computer again.