Some Hints on Writing a Paper:

Dr. Bill Young

Below are hints for writing a research paper. I'll add others as I think of them. Please take these into consideration as you edit your paper for the class.
  1. For your CS361C paper you are required to use LaTeX to format it. You should use BibTeX to handle references. Here is a separate series of hints for using BibTeX: BibTex Hints.

  2. Assume that your reader is a technically savvy person, but one who knows next to nothing about your specific area. When you introduce a concept or some jargon, explain it. For example, if you refer to Bitcoin blockchains, explain briefly how they work. If you use jargon such as "darknet" or "doxxing," explain what that means.
  3. Start with a section-level outline of the paper. That will keep you from wandering all over the place. Into each section, put only what's relevant to that section. If you can't think of what sections you need in the paper, you are not ready to write the paper.

  4. Divide your paper into sections with section headers. Use subsections, if appropriate. Unless your paper is very long, you probably don't need headers below the subsection level.

  5. The first thing in your paper is an abstract. The abstract is essentially an advertisement for someone to read the paper. It describes very briefly what you accomplish in the paper (not the structure of the paper) and why it's important.

  6. Have an Introduction section at the start that describes the problem you are addressing. It should conclude with a paragraph describing what is in the other sections of the paper. The Introduction should not just reiterate the abstract.

  7. End with a Conclusions section. It should summarize your paper and state what you discovered.

  8. If you are not a native speaker of English, have a friend who is edit your paper for you. A good strategy is to read your paper aloud to see if your sentences are really sentences and make sense.

  9. Try reading the paper aloud to see if your sentences make sense or read fluidly. Given some of the bizarre non-sentences I find, I can't believe some students actually ever read the papers they write.

  10. Avoid long and complex sentences. Don't use words that you don't fully understand to make yourself sound smart.

  11. It's usually considered bad form to have a paragraph that is a single sentence.

  12. Also, it's bad form to have a single subsection. For example, if you have a section 4 and subsection 4.1, but no 4.2, try combining 4 and 4.1 into a single section 4.

  13. Avoid forward references. If you introduce concept X in section 5, don't talk about it in section 2. When you're familiar with a subject, it's easy to forget that your reader hasn't yet been introduced to that topic. This is a particular problem if you reorder sections in a draft of the paper.
  14. Try to avoid very long paragraphs. It a paragraph goes on for a whole column (page) or more, it's probably too long. Don't insert artificial breaks, but think about whether you really should have more than one paragraph.

  15. If you have two distinct thoughts in a sentence, consider making it two sentences. In no case should you just separate them with a comma; that's called "comma splicing." Use a semicolon instead, but only if they are closely related. Example: "This is one thought; this is a related though."

  16. Use a spell-checker.

  17. "It's" is a conjunction for "it is." If you can't replace a use of "it's" by "it is," you meant "its."

  18. Any time you use the word "which," ask yourself if "that" would work as well. If so, use "that" instead.

  19. In written American English, quotation marks always follow commas and periods. They may fall inside other punctuation. Example, "foo," "bar," and "baz." Did she say "braf"?

  20. If you are referring explicitly to a name or phrase, either use italics or quotation marks. For example, "This was originally denoted as 'the invisible web.' " Here "the invisible web" refers to a term, not to the thing named.

  21. Whenever you have a list of things, make sure that the items in the list are parallel. That is, all items should be of the same type (nouns, phrases, sentences, etc.).

  22. If you are tempted to say "as I told you above" or something similar, rethink it. If you said it before, you probably don't need to say it again, particularly in a short paper.

  23. Make sure you are not plagiarizing. Any significant fact that you got from another source should have a reference. Every direct quotation should have a reference, unless you have a bunch of them in a row from the same source. If you copied a sentence verbatim from Wikipedia or another source, you are plagiarizing. You must credit the source and rewrite it into your own words (unless it's a direct quotation).

  24. Typically, you'll be writing a research paper, not an opinion piece. It's OK to express your opinion, but make sure to distinguish fact from your opinion. If you include opinion, it's best to put it into a separate section called "Analysis" or in the "Conclusions" section.

  25. If you are going to use an acronym, define it the first time it's used. For example, "The National Security Agency (NSA) ...." Later you can use NSA freely, without having to specify what it stands for.

  26. Make sure your references and bibliography follow a style accepted for the field. Don't trust your text formatter to get them right. Look them over. However, if you are using LaTeX and BibTeX correctly, the references will be correctly formatted.

  27. Use figures, pictures, tables and graphs where appropriate. A long prose description of a complicated algorithm is boring and much harder to follow than a graph.

  28. Don't pad your paper with excessive spacing, big margins, extraneous figures, etc. It's better to have a short paper that is substantive than a long paper full of fluff.

  29. Long quotes should be set off from the body of the text. The rule of thumb is that any quote shorter than four lines can be in-lined. Longer quotes should be block indented.

  30. Be careful with time references. For example, if you say "just in the last year" or "this problem has persisted for four months," be aware that this won't be meaningful to someone reading your paper a year from now. If you make a time reference, make it absolute rather than relative to the current date, e.g, "during 2014" or "in the first four months of 2015."
  31. Frequently, I notice that quotation marks are missing, including single quotes. That can happen if you format your paper in Word and copy it to LaTeX. These use different characters for quotes, single and double. After you run LaTeX, make sure that the quotes are appearing, and do a global substitution for any that are in the input but not appearing in the formatted version.

  32. When using LaTeX, some things behave oddly. For example, some characters like "<" and ">" don't render as you'd expect. Instead, you'll get an inverted "!" and an inverted "?". If you need < and > you can use \textless or \textgreater.

  33. If you include a figure or table, make sure it's readable. If in two column format, you can use figure* or table* to produce a floating figure / table that will span two columns.

  34. LaTeX turns the character " into a right double quote, which looks odd at the left end of a quotation. You can avoid this by typing a left double quote as `` and a right double quote as ''.

  35. Use appropriate typographic conventions in your text. For example, computer commands are typically rendered in fixed-width typewriter font. You can do this in LaTeX with the \tt{command} directive, where command is the command string. If your command contains special characters such as >, you can use the verbatim environment: \verb|cat blah > foo|. Note that you don't use \verb{...}. Instead, for delimiters use any character that doesn't appear in the string, with the same character used at both ends of the string.