Write right for research

Prof Tony Roberts

Contents of this section

Write well

90% of research papers get less than 10 citations.

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 => make it interesting. Start with a keyword. Put in a verb and make it a statement. Be specific.
The abstract is not a table of contents. Say what is delivered, the essential qualities of the paper. Use less than 50 words for each of the following questions: 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 points in your Introduction.

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

Summarise your work in its entirety. You may assume readers reaching the conclusion have a knowledge of the technicalities, having survived the body of the text, so you may use jargon if necessary. Since the simple version of your results will have been given in the abstract and introduction, the conclusion is your chance to summarise the results in detail.

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.

The important point is that this principle applies at all levels.

Apply the following test to help beleaguered readers. Does your document make coherent sense:

If the answer is no to any of the above, then you must rewrite accordingly.


A well written document is self-similar---it has much the same design principles at all levels.

aroberts@usq.edu.au, 19 Aug 1998

Prof AJ Roberts
Dept Maths & Computing
University of Southern Queensland
Toowoomba, Queensland 4350

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