How to write a good paper or report

Werner Vogels wites an interesting article about what he looks for in a good report.  The advice is slanted towards academic papers, but its pretty useful for any technical writer.  he also references an excellent article that goes into the subject in greater detail.  Here is an extract with the main points:

  • User or system requirements. Most of the papers I read are about networking, operating systems, distributed systems, but being active is such a deep technical field does not exempt you from thinking about WHY you are doing this. Who or what is going to use your system? Can you write down the requirements and constraints such that it is clear to the reader why this drives your research? Do you have trace or input data that matches your requirements? Even if you did not start out with requirements (sometimes you just have a cool idea), when you write about it you must define what the criteria for success for your project are and why.
  • Alternative design decisions. It cannot have been the case that there is only one path to your goal. You must have seen other roads along the way, but you decided not to follow those. Why not? It is important to motivate the choices you have made, if you want your reader to learn from your process, not just from your final success.
  • Context. You are not the only person doing research and you are not the only one producing these wonderful unique solutions. You have to spend more than 2 paragraphs on placing your work in context. It is OK to say that others have done the same before, but that you are approaching it from a different angle, or with different data. For example a good engineering paper might not have fundamentally new results, but can focus on how to bring results into practice, which might be just as hard a problem or even harder. Do not discard other people’s work with just a single sentence but give them the respect you would like your work to get.
  • Implementation details. If you add this to your paper, make sure you really provide details. Not just a schema of how your components fit together, but also information about why you got to this software design. It cannot have been the case that you got it right with one try. What were the other attempts that you discarded and why?
  • Experiments I can talk days about how to perform good experiments in support of your research. But I consider experiments in support of a paper to be something else; here the goal of the experiments becomes communication, not just data mining. With the selection and description of the experiments you have to keep your audience in mind. What were your requirements and how can you show that your solution meets those requirements, by presenting your experimental results. Often your experiments you ran during your research are not the same as the ones you use for your paper. There is not enough room in papers for exhaustive experiment descriptions, so design tests to get the message across.
  • Boundaries. It cannot be that your solution is perfect for all cases. Show us what is the window of your success, but also show what are the boundaries. This is often just as important as the describing the successful application.
  • Lessons. What lessons did you learn from your work? Positive as well as negative. Your audience will often learn more from your negative experiences than from your glorious positive ones.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

5 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I particularly like the idea of authors telling the reader about ideas that did not work; experiments that proved nothing; pitfalls to avoid – and talking pride in all that. I have advocated that in my ‘sermons’ to younger architects.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I forgot to log in and sign the above comment.

    I would like to add that the best of learned comminities actually do have guidelines and referes that police them, to maintain the level of quality in their technical publications. I think that the educational system badly fails most graduates by not teaching them to write good reports, then expect them suddenly to submit a dissertation or thesis that fulfills these criteria.

  3. searah says:

    you know i didn’t quite like what I’m reading…

  4. Chelsea says:

    hi well i loved it it was good in detail and stuff! keep up the good work!^-^

  5. searah says:

    just kidding ok i did like what i read just sometimes i don’t want to admit it!

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