Monday, January 3, 2011

Being Brilliant vs. Writing Well

In the vast world of academic Computer Science publishing, I am about to tell you the greatest secret of all:

You can make up for lack of genius by being a good writer.

Being a good writer will never guarantee a paper acceptance. But I'll tell you, if your paper is like butter for a reviewer to read, it makes it all the more difficult for them to tear it apart. If your writing is crisp and clear and sharp and snappy, it makes reviewers feel joy in the hearts. Especially compared to the other poor abuses of the English language they had to sludge though before your paper walked through the door.

It's actually quite easy to learn to write well. Here are some tips:

1) Practice, practice, practice. A blog can really help, actually. Twitter probably not so much. You want to aim for cogent prose.

2) Read a lot. Read well-edited publications - newspapers, magazines, journals. Journalists are excellent at grabbing your attention and keeping it. This skill is invaluable in scientific writing.

3) Less is more. You are not getting paid by the word here. (In fact just the opposite - many conferences have page charges if you go over the limit!). It is not necessary to give every gory detail. It is highly unlikely you need to paste code into your paper. Just convey the information that is most important - what is it you want people to take away after reading your paper?

4) Once you're confident, take some risks. I know your 3rd grade teacher told you all of these things about structure and topic sentences and a conclusion section and an outline section and all that jazz. But really you need to figure out your own style that best helps you convey clear ideas.

5) Proofread your paper very carefully before submitting it. I am shocked when I read papers with grammar errors, spelling errors, and typos, particularly from senior academics who are fluent English speakers. Take the time to proofread, or outsource. (Occasional errors are understandable, but a paper should not be littered with them).

6) Practice!


  1. Yes, this! Awesome post, FCS!
    It is unbelievable how much good writing enhances your chances of a paper's smooth review process. And how dry, cumbersome writing can help bury (or needlessly complicates the review process for) even the most brilliant and technically challenging work.

  2. "it makes reviewers feel joy in the hearts"... wait, which hearts?

    I'm sorry. My big mouth & I just had to say something. (I'd also say I'm disregarding the parenthetical punctuation, but that's no longer true. Doh!)

    Seriously though this is a fun article. Nicely done, FCS.

    - another computer scientist

  3. GMP and ACS - thanks! And, ACS, your comment made me chuckle. (Don't worry, emacs will still be happy).

  4. Great post! It amazes me how many scientists think writing skills are irrelevant. I try to get my students to think about this with limited success.

  5. I agree completely with this post. Thanks