Some tips and tricks when writing academic papers

I have been teaching the course Research Methods, Tools and Issues in our MCT programme this semester. The last class was an “open clinic” in which I answered questions about academic writing. Here is a summary of some of the things I answered, which may hopefully also be useful for others.

Formatting

Your academic exam paper is not the place to experiment with fancy layout and formatting. Some basic tips:

  • Template: Choose a conservative template (but not too old-school). Check that it is in A4, as templates using a North-American “letter” paper size looks weird when/if printed in A4.
  • Font: A serif font typically looks more serious than a sans-serif, so “Times New Roman” or something similar is the safest choice.
  • Paragraphs: There are different ways of formatting paragraphs. The two most common ones are: (1) indented first lines, (2) spaces between lines. The first type is the most common in professional type-setting and is what you see in books and academic journals. It is also the most space-conservative. Making spaces between lines is what most people do when they write on computers. Choose whichever type you want, but do not mix the two.

Writing

It is impossible to cover everything about academic writing here. But these are the things I usually comment on when I supervise:

  • Long sentences: It is better to write short and meaningful sentences than long and complex ones. Many students think that their text will look more academic if they make long sentences. The truth, however, is that it is much more pleasurable to read well-formed and meaningful sentences. The general rule of thumb is to include only one point in a sentence. If in doubt, start a new sentence. It also helps to read your text out loud. Whenever you feel that
  • Short sentences: Some students only write very short sentences. This is not good either, so find a balance.

Spelling and grammar

Whatever you do, ensure that your texts are not full of spelling mistakes. You should also reduce the number of grammatical errors. There are so many tools available to help you these days, so there is no excuse for not using them before you submit your final text.

Figures

Figures are nice, please include them! But when you do, always think about this:

  • Label: Figures should always have a figure name (“Figure 1”) followed by an explanation of what the figure is about (“This figure shows…”). Ideally, the figure text should be sufficient to understand what the figure aims at conveying of information. Many people (like myself) like to browse through papers and books quickly, and use the figures as a way to quickly navigate the content. Then it helps if the figure texts are self-explanatory.
  • Text size: Figures are often made in different software than where you write. This means that you typically do not have full control of their size in the final layout, hence the text inside of the figure may be too large and too big. As part of the final layout, you should try to make the text size similar to the text size of the main document within which the figure is placed.
  • Units, labels and legends: If you include graphs or other types of representations of numbers, it is critical to include information about what the axes mean and the units that you have used (“Time (s)”, “Number of people”, “Vertical position (mm)”). You should also have clearly marked legends (if relevant) to explain what the different lines in your figure are.
  • Simplify: You should always aim to remove unnecessary stuff from figures so that the most important things are what people see. This follows Tufte’s ideal of aspiring for a high “data-ink ratio”.

References

Adding references to your text, and including a bibliography at the end of your document, is the clearest sign that you are writing an academic paper.

  • Consistency: Ensure that all citations have an entry in the bibliography. Similarly, all entries in the bibliography should be referenced in the text.
  • Reference manager: Use a reference manager to keep track of everything. While it is not perfect, I generally recommend Zotero. It works on all platforms, has an online front-end, and integrates with many writing platforms.

Submission

  • PDF: If you are not asked to do otherwise, always submit a PDF file. This will ensure that both content and layout are preserved for the final reader. Submitting your “raw files” (.docx, .pages, .odt, etc.) is problematic for a number of reasons. First, they may not be readable by people on different platforms (.pages files only work on OSX, for example). Second, often such raw files contain the history of the file, which you may not want the end reader to see. This may be particularly important if you have been using track changes.
  • Good naming: Always give your file a useful name. If your exam is anonymous, include your candidate number in the file name. If not anonymous, include your last name. Your examiner will probably download a zip-folder with all submissions. Having a bunch of files with names such as “exam.pdf”, “submission.pdf”, etc., is annoying.
  • Supplementary files: It is often fine/useful/required to submit supplementary material. Then it is usually good to have a list at the end of your main document describing what you have chosen to include (for example, a list describing audio files). If you have many supplementary files, you should zip them down and give them a useful name. Again: remember that the reader will download your submission together with a bunch of other things. It is your job to make the read as pleasurable as possible.

General form

The standard “IMRAD” form of a paper looks like this:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
    • Motivation (could include a rhetorical question/something catchy)
    • Research question(s)
    • (Hypotheses)
    • Definitions
    • Limitations / scope
    • Overview of the paper
  • Background (either chronological or topical)
  • Methods (be precise – explain what you did, how, etc)
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion

Many interaction papers, and also “NIME-like” papers, have a form something like:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Method
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation / Discussion
  • Conclusion

Published by

alexarje

Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.