Write right for research
Prof Tony Roberts
Contents of this section
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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
- 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
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:
- tell them what you will tell them;
- tell them;
- tell them what you have told them.
The important point is that this principle applies at all
- 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) will
introduce and summarise the body of the section (or subsection).
- The first and last sections of a chapter will introduce and summarise
the body of the chapter.
- The first and last chapters introduce and summarise an entire
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
- 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?
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,
19 Aug 1998
Prof AJ Roberts
Dept Maths & Computing
University of Southern Queensland
Toowoomba, Queensland 4350