Write right for readers

The only proper attitude is to look upon a successful interpretation, a correct understanding, as a triumph against the odds. We must cease to regard a misinterpretation as a mere unlucky accident. We must treat it as the normal and probable event.    Practical Criticism, I. A. Richards (1929)

Write well

90% of research papers get less than 10 citations. Over the period 1945--88 the most cited paper, by O. H. Lowry et al. Protein measurement with the Folin phenol reagent, received a staggering 187,652 citations. In contrast, 55.8% of papers were cited just once, and 24.1% were cited 2--4 times!

You have to 'sell' your work and ideas. People spend time on what they perceive will benefit them. Here I describe what I consider to be the two main principles for organising your writing.

You must structure your document so that even those who read only a little can take away something of value---that way they are more likely to take note of what you say and to come back for more. Write something understandable and useful early.

You must also give the reader a "map" of what you are writing about. Introduce and summarise at all levels in your writing.

Structure your writing on a pyramid organisation

Many people will read your title; some will read the abstract; a few will read the introduction; and only a handful (perhaps only the referees, sigh) will struggle with the body of your article. Give each of these readers something to take away after they leave your article.

The title is the first chance to lose a reader; thus make the title interesting. Start with a keyword. Put in a verb and make the title a statement. Be specific.
The abstract is not a table of contents. Instead, say what is delivered, give the essential qualities of the paper. Use less than 50 words for each of the following questions:
  • What was done?
  • Why do it?
  • What were the results?
  • What do the results mean in theory and/or practise?
  • What is the reader's benefit?
  • How can the readers use this information for themselves?
The abstract is probably all most readers read, it must be a complete though necessarily sketchy description in itself.

A wide range of people in your discipline may read your abstract if you have made the title interesting. Keep the level of jargon low, perhaps to that appropriate to Honours degree students.

The Introduction has to show that your story is worth telling in detail. The Introduction is likely to be all an interested reader reads, again it must be complete in itself. Use a level of jargon appropriate to say post-graduate students. Place your work in the context of other research. Summarise your main results, albeit in a suitably simplified form.

Face it: only the dedicated diehards are going to want to wade through the details of the rest of the paper. Give the key results and connections in your Introduction.

Sprinkle some synonyms of "novel" in order to be clear what is new that you deliver: new, original, fresh, innovative, innovational, inventive, modern, advanced, avant-garde, pioneering, groundbreaking, trailblazing, revolutionary, unprecedented, exotic.

Shewchuk puts it this way the introduction is the most important part of your paper, because few of your readers will ever read beyond it. And there's not much hope that any of them will if you don't grab their attention from the start. So it's a mystery why so many papers begin with twaddle

The body
Write well. Be definite. Be descriptive. Be precise. Cross reference. Use short sentences.

Keep close together nouns and their verbs: that is, say "the cat sat on the mat" not "the cat on the mat sat". For another example, ``Mostly, I read the books I review on trains.'' surely means ``Mostly, I read on trains the books that I review.'' not that the reviewer mostly chooses to actually read the book when he has to review one about trains.

`Feedback' sometimes despairs at the way scientists write their research papers. the prose often seems pompous, the meaning obscure. For some reason, many boffins don't seem to be able to resist using a long technical word when the simple everyday equivalent would do. We suspect the problem may start in the schoolroom.

Recently, one of Feedback's colleagues asked her daughter how her physics lessons were going at school. "I really like physics, and I have no problems understanding it," the daughter replied. "But I often get a bad mark for my written work."

"Why?" the concerned mother asked. "Well, the teacher doesn't like the way I write," came the reply. "For example, last week when I was writing up an experiment, I put down: `The object moved to one side.' The teacher said that I should have written `The object was displaced horizontally.' " New Scientist, 10 March, 1990

Summarise your work in its entirety. Assume readers reaching the conclusion have a knowledge of the technicalities, having survived the body of the text, so discuss at a more advanced level than that possible in the Introduction. Also discuss future possibilities.

Good examples of this style are to be found every week in the New Scientist magazine. Look for the short pithy title giving some essence of the main point. It is followed by a paragraph stating the main point more precisely in a couple of sentences. Then the body of the text gives the details. These are the same features of writing that we all need to employ.

First and last, or the rule of three

Readers give most attention to the first and last parts of any chunk of reading. Use these first and last parts to introduce and summarise the material, the body of your argument, that comes in between. This leads to the rule of three for writing:
  1. tell them what you will tell them;
  2. tell them;
  3. tell them what you have told them---but do not repeat the introduction, instead add value by highlighting and discussing.
This gloriously and overly simple minded `rule of thumb' has the correct essence. Strunk phrases the same idea, in a more nuanced form, as begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning. Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain the purpose in mind as he ends it

I emphasise that this principle applies at all levels (more-or-less).

  • The first and last sentence of a paragraph must introduce and summarise the body of argument in that paragraph.
  • The first and last paragraph in a section (or subsection) introduces and summarises the body of the section (or subsection).
  • The first and last sections of a chapter introduces and summarises the body of the chapter.
  • The first and last chapters introduce and summarise an entire dissertation.

Apply the following test to help beleaguered readers. Does your document make some sort of sense:

  • if you just read the first sentence in every paragraph in a section?
  • if you just read the first paragraph in every section?
  • if you just read the first section of every chapter?
If the answer is no to any of the above, then rewrite accordingly.


A well written document is self-similar---it has much the same design principles at all levels.
  • Use a pyramid organisation with a definite and complete description for the reader at each level.
  • The first and last parts of everything are the most important. Use them to introduce and to summarise.
  • Read about writing from more informed sources than I. For example,
    • N. J. Higham, Handbook of writing for the mathematical sciences, SIAM, 1998, http://www.siam.org/books/ot63 (excellent for writing with mathematical content included---I use it as the text for our communication courses)
    • W. Strunk Jr. The Elements of Style, W. P. Humphrey, 1918. http://www.bartleby.com/141
    • Jonathan Shewchuk, Three Sins of Authors in Computer Science and Math, http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~jrs/sins.html", 1997.
    • Barrass, Scientists must write, Chapman and Hall, 1978. (good for science and engineering in general)
    • Justin Zobel, Writing for computer science, Springer, 2000.