How to write papers

I’ve just found a brief but very well written Guide to Writing Papers by S. Majid (of quantum groups fame). He makes many a good point, specially for those of us whose mother tongue is not English. And you’ll find also useful advice on contents and organization.

When it comes to writing good English prose, Strunk and White’s classic “The Elements of Style” (also available and searchable online) is, of course, required reading, but i find Dupré’s “BUGS in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose” much more fun and equally insightful. Also worth a look is the online Researcher’s Bible (hat tip Jocelyn Paine), which is similar in scope to Majid’s tutorial. And for a good, thought-provoking laugh, don’t miss the indispensable How to Write a Scientific Paper, over at Improbable Research.

Let me take the opportunity to recommend two of my all-time favourite essays on scientific writing: the classic How I Write by Bertrand Russell, and the recent A parallel tradition, where Ian MacEwan beautifully makes the case for a scientific literary tradition. So much for the science/humanities divide!

Finally, lest you had not enough, this blog entry by W. Zinsser is, in my opinion, an excellent guide to improving your writing skills (scientific or otherwise), and contains links to several other interesting books on the subject.

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4 Responses to “How to write papers”

  1. Nigel Cook Says:

    Thank you for the links in this post. I’m interested to see Shahn Majid states on his home page http://www.maths.qmw.ac.uk/~majid/index.html

    ‘I have nothing against string theory but don’t think it is nearly radical enough to be the ‘ultimate’ theory of physics, which I suspect won’t have even a continuum for spacetime let alone points or strings moving in a continuum.’

    I also notice that he mentions in his paper writing guide which you link to:

    ‘It is assumed of course that the you have some results worth presenting (as no amount of good writing can cover up a lack of content).’

    If string theory is physically vacuous then you have to wonder what if any long-term value such mathematical research will have? How much of the current string theory work has been published on the basis of solid mathematical insight, rather than physics related speculation?

  2. jao Says:

    Nigel, thanks for your comments. As for your questions, i don’t know near enough string theory to make a qualified answer. My position is, nevertheless, of profound distrust.

    Reading what i consider qualified and respectful opinions (e.g. Penrose’s or Witten’s), i’m left with a sour taste in my mouth. For what i understand, nearly none of the many and spectacular claims made by string theorists (renormalizability at all orders, general relativity as a necessary consequence, even computation of Bekenstein’s equation) is well grounded.

    I distrust hype. And prepotence. Besides, i don’t even find the fancy physical universe sold by ST intuitively appealing: seemingly arbitrary (on physical grounds) number of dimensions, background dependence, or the latest fad, the ‘landscape’, are definitely not my cup of tea. The continuous claims about a misterious M-(or F-)theory that will, some day, explain everything but that nobody understand just add to my discontent. That’s not the kind of physics i learnt and love, which is much more akin to the ideas and philosophy of people like Smolin, Rovelli, Penrose or even mathematicians like Connes (not to mention the great physicists of the twentieth century). And, if you ask me, even the mathematics of non-mainstream approaches like LQG, twistor theory or NCG is more elegant and beautiful than most of what i’ve seen in the ST camp.

    Just my two unqualified cents.

  3. a philosophy student Says:


    Maybe I can add How to Write (with cartoons :) ) by William J. Rapaport, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University at Buffalo, and the Student Resources page by Scott Wilson, Department of Philosophy, Wright State University, containing Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper by Jim Pryor, DoP, NYU, and several other interesting links (related to philosophy), check out for instance Philosophical humor by David Calmers.

  4. jao Says:

    Thanks, Kristof, for the very interesting links… BTW, i agree with Smolin on philosophers, and hope his saying works the other way round too ;)

    And talking of links, if discovered that not everybody likes Strunk and White’s classic, and a nice blog for those of you interested in language, aptly called The Language Log.

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