Friday, March 31, 2006

Academic Papers Part Deux

So, here are some lessons I've learned from writing this paper and abstract:

  • LaTeX is your friend. It really isn't that much more difficult than regular word processors to use, especially after you've learned it. I find that there are many things, especially equations and symbols, that I can do much easier than in Word. I really didn't want to learn it at first, but I picked it up in January and I'm extremely pleased that I did.
  • Start early, and be prepared to throw away several drafts. I actually started writing this paper in January and February, but the current version looks barely anything like those versions. The first version tends to just be a way to get your thoughts down.
  • Taking breaks is productive. During part of my paper reviewing with my instructor we pushed her son and his friend on the swings. It was a great stress relief, and helped keep us focus (as oxymoronic as that is). Taking an hour without reading it will also help you to see the errors in your paper.
  • Shortening really is easier than writing it short to begin with. We have a 2 page abstract due, but we wrote most of the 10+ page paper first. Since writing more is usually easier than writing less, this approach let us organize our thoughts and be sure we had everything covered. Then we took the most important parts to make the abstract. I tried to just write the abstract before writing the paper, and I think this way was definitely easier.
  • Always check the conference website multiple times. For instance, the deadline is usually extended. Also, if they have a template they want you to follow it is probably a good idea to follow it. It sucks when you've gotten it to a good length and then find out your font is too small.
  • Previous work is almost more important than your own. I may be exaggerating a bit, but having a weak previous work section will kill you. Previous work mostly showed that you understand the field and acknowledge that you are not the only person involved in it. Eventually you may be able to mostly cite yourself, but as a grad student you need to prove that you understand that you are only a grad student, no matter how totally awesome you are.
  • There will always be a word or phrase you overuse. Find it, and exterminate it. My advisor pointed out that I used the phrase "our system" too much, and then realized that she used the word "typically" too often. There will always be a word that comes quickly to mind as you revise, and even if you use it sparingly each time those usages add up. Always read over your paper looking for those words and phrases, and fix it before you submit!
  • Be concise and precise, and you will go far. Writing blogs unfortunately can kill your conciseness, but when writing papers it is crucial! If you can say what you want to say in fewer words than planned, your audience might actually understand your point. But don't sacrifice necessary explanations for shortened length.
  • When playing freeze tag, be sure to be frozen near where your advisor is frozen so you can discuss the paper she's editing while you wait for the kids to unfreeze you. Sure, this probably doesn't apply to most of you, but I find this advise very useful. It's also good to make sure that if your advisor trips over a hole and falls that she's OK, even if her kid jumps on her afterwards as if it was planned.

OK, that's all for now. The abstract will be done later today, and I may have a 3rd part to go along with the 2nd one after we're done. But hopefully not.

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