UMD   This Site

Benjamin Shapiro
Fischell Department of Bioengineering
Joint appointment with:
Institute for Systems Research
2246 Kim Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742
Tel: (301) 405-4191
Fax: (301) 405-9953

Writing Tips
William S. Trimmer, edited by Benjamin Shapiro

(This is a work in progress, I updated this document as I get new ideas. A lot of this document is based, word for word sometimes, on an essay written by William S. Trimmer in "Micromechanics and MEMS: Classic and Seminal Papers to 1990.)

The most important thing to remember is that you are writing for someone. Somebody might one day pick up your document and actually read it: you want to make that persons life as easy as possible.

Picture who you are writing for. It is good to think of 3 people: a novice; someone who is knowledgeable in science but who knows little about the field being discussed; and an expert. As you write, put in something for each of these 3 people. When an extended section is needed, perhaps for the expert, you can warn the novice, "The rest of this section contains a detailed description of the numerical method."

Plan your document carefully. I usually like to start with an outline which I slowly make more detailed. For example, I will block out the initial document as: abstract, introduction, previous work, technical setup, method of solution, results, and conclusion. Then I will decide what each piece will contain. Each paragraph describes one coherent thought. (Notice how this paragraph describes planning your document, the previous paragraph talks about writing for an audience of 3 people.) Leave the abstract, introduction and summary for last; once you have blocked out your entire document it will be clear what you want to emphasize in these overview sections.

A lot of people think the abstract, introduction and conclusion are three places that required identical information. This is not true.

The abstract is being read by people deciding if they want to read your article. Hence your abstract must be an honest and concise appraisal of the results in the paper. What are the key questions? What are the key results? How does your work differ from the rest of the literature?

The introduction is a road map. After reading the introduction the reader should be able to scan the article and easily find the important facts. Having a well-planned document with descriptive section and sub-section headings will further help the reader skim the paper effectively. The body of the work will provide the details, your job in the introduction is to outline your approach.

The conclusion is your chance to summarize your work and to put it into perspective. Here you can assume the reader knows the details; he or she needs a broad overview.

I also want to emphasize three simple considerations that most people forget.

With almost no exceptions, you have spent far more time thinking about this problem than anyone else on the planet. (If you haven't, you shouldn't be writing a research article on the subject.) Things that are obvious to you are not obvious to almost everyone else! Your job is to simplify your analysis as much as possible and convey your information as clearly as possible. Picture the novice and explain in simple language the basics of your approach: first we have to do this, then we need to find that, etc. Only once you have done this, can you go in and focus on the details. The last thing you want to do is to try show how smart you are by emphasizing your solution of a very specific technical problem. To be blunt: you are the only person that cares, and if you emphasize details it will only confuse your readers.

Many authors use the previous work section to show how their work is clever, and the rest of the literature is stupid. This is a problem for a number of reasons. First, these same authors are going to review your paper. Second, such a portrayal of the literature makes you, not the other authors, seem simple and sophomoric. Third, you are missing a chance to communicate important information to other authors. Don't do this. As far as possible, you need to provide an accurate picture of what has been done before and what is different in your work.

Most people will not read your paper in detail. At best, they will skim it; at worst they will read the abstract and conclusion. For this reason the first page of your paper is critical. (Having a figure that conveys the major thrust of your work on this page is very helpful.) You want your paper to be sufficiently well organized that the reader can find the information that he or she needs quickly and efficiently. This means you want descriptive and accurate section and subsection titles; and you want each paragraph to talk about one well-defined idea. It is good practice to start each paragraph with a sentence that describes the paragraph to come. In conclusion: write to be read. Try to keep in mind what your reader knows and doesn't know, and present the missing information as clearly as possible.

Top of page

More Tools



©2013 |

Aerospace Home UM Home Page BIOE Home Clark School Home