Write the Paper Very first

by Jason Eisner (2010)

If you’re planning to submit a conference paper, I’d like to strongly suggest that you spend the next few days just writing the paper (even if you haven’t yet planned or finished the experiments).

The deadline is a few weeks or months away. You can spare a few days now just to concentrate hard on the writing. Here are several reasons why.

Writing is the best use of limited time

If you have to choose inbetween clear writing and extensive experiments, pick writing:

Clear writing increases your odds of acceptance

Clear motivation and exposition are more significant than results for getting your paper accepted. If you run out of time, it is better to have a good story with incomplete experiments than a dirty draft with accomplish experiments. A good paper builds its case with the accumulated weight of several experiments, so missing a few is not fatal (and you can finish them for the camera-ready version). But a confusing, unconvincing, or incomplete writeup is fatal.

A well-known senior academic told me that they review papers by reading as far as they can understand, then assigning a score based on how far they got. I don’t recommend that, but it is exactly how editors review manuscripts in the publishing world. A friend in my wifey’s book club has trouble completing novels, because all her training as an editor says to make a decision by page 40 and budge on.

But let’s assume you are aiming for both clear writing and finish experiments. Suppose you have to finish the paper on no sleep. Which would you rather have left for the last minute, writing or hacking?

Hint #1: You can hack on little sleep, if you know what needs to be hacked. But you can’t write effectively. Writing involves many big and petite decisions, which will seem insurmountable when you’re weakened and panicked.

Hint #Two: Five students can be hacking in parallel at the last minute, but they can’t all be co-writing with me at the last minute. You have your own computer but you have to share your advisor.

Clear writing increases the influence of your published paper

There are two reasons a paper will be cited.

If you have a excellent implementation that people can just use as a black box, then they’ll download it, use it, and cite you. (At least until someone builds a better black box.)

Otherwise, your paper is only useful for the ideas that it provides (e.g. well-explained reusable mechanisms).

The latter case is more frequent—and there, the writeup is the research (just as in History or Literature). The ideas in your paper will live on if they get picked up and used in other systems. They have to be clear and wooing.

Aren’t the experiments significant too? Yes, but mainly to persuade people that the ideas are worth picking up, and to illustrate how they work out in practice. They merely demonstrate whether your method worked as you claim. Certainly experiments take a lot of work—and you should be careful, painstakingly fair, thoughtful in your analysis of results, and willing to give out your code. But other people will often choose to write their own code based on your writeup. Your code usually dies; your writeup needs to live.

Of course, the experiments are significant in their own right if the point of the paper is to disprove the existence of Proto-Indo-European or demonstrate that MySpace users are functionally illiterate. That’s actual science where the experiments tell you something about the world.

But for most of our papers, the experiments only tell us whether a particular method achieved high spectacle for a particular problem on a particular dataset. Your followers will actually be applying variants and extensions of your method to different problems and data. So they will care mostly about the method, as long as the results look okay.

The document is a concentrate for discussion with others

A draft is concrete, visible, and understandable by others, so it is something that you and others can discuss, debate, and improve. If you have a paper draft early, then you can give it to other people (including me) for feedback. And we can improve the paper together via a git or svn repository and its issue tracker.

Your draft can describe your motivation, formal problem, model, algorithms, and experiments before you actually build anything. (Ideally, it will also explain why you did it this way rather than some other way, and point out gaps that remain for future work.) By showcasing others the draft at this stage, you’ll get significant feedback before you invest time in the “wrong” work.

If you run into trouble while doing the work, then I may have difficulty diagnosing or even understanding the problem you are facing. We may waste a entire meeting just getting aligned. But if you can demonstrate me a precise writeup of what you’re doing, then I can be much more helpful. In general, meetings are very productive when we have a concrete document in front of us.

Of course, there are many kinds of concrete documents. You could instead write up the notes from our (usually extensive) discussions as private documents for further discussion. Still, writing up in the form of a final paper makes you (1) integrate everything in one place, (Two) determine which ideas will be made central for this paper, and (Three) concentrate on the coherence and influence of the end product. (Extra discussion and brainstorming can still go into the document—those subsections can be cut or moved to an appendix for the conference paper, but retained for a longer version as a tech report, journal article, or dissertation.)

I look forward to eyeing what you write!

Writing is a mechanism for planning what to work on

Is it a good topic?

Most readers determine whether they like a paper before they get to the experimental results. Display people a draft of the very first 2-3 pages before you do any experiments. If they tell you that your basic idea will evoke skepticism or yawns from reviewers, it’s better to know that before you waste your time.

(You might drop the paper, fix the basic idea, or in some cases pick another conference. If you drop it, the writeup will still come in handy in a year or two when you realize that the idea could be applied elsewhere.)

What needs to be done?

Assuming the idea is indeed a good one, then writing a draft makes you sharpen the message of the paper. Then you can figure out what work needs to be done to support exactly that message .

Your introduction will make some claims. Often you will realize that some interesting extra experiment would indeed test those claims.

Writing the literature review will help you design your experiments. It may influence what datasets you use, what comparisons you do, and what you are attempting to prove you can do that other people can’t.

However, don’t write the lit review very first. Write out your own ideas before comparing them with the literature. This increases the chance that you’ll find fresh angles on the problem.

  • Writing the experimental section is possible even before you’ve done the experiments. Explain the total experimental design. Make empty result tables with row and column headers and explanatory captions. Make empty graphs with axes and captions. The actual results will be missing, but it will be clear what work is necessary.

    If you are having trouble switching your brain from experiments to writing, just write up your current experiments very first. Albeit writing an intro will also help, so you can explain why you are doing the experiments.

  • Fair writing may lead you to realize that proving your point requires more work than you’d thought (which is why you’d better write early). Recall Richard Feynman’s classic speech on how to do fair science: “The very first principle is that you must not idiot yourself—and you are the easiest person to loser.”

    What will fit?

    Writing very first also helps you gauge the scope of the paper. You may detect that you can’t fit your intended presentation into the page thresholds. That may cause you to divide up the work into two or more papers, each of which has to make a separate clear point. So it will greatly affect your planning.

    Alas, I often attempt to present my entire story at once, so my papers attempt to force a journal paper’s worth of work into a conference-size spoon. Too dense and indigestible. Better to publish a few amuse-bouches. Or maybe the conferences will commence permitting us to give talks about work that we’ve published in journals.

    The document is an organizing scheme for your work on the paper

    Your very first step is to outline the paper. Download the paper template from the conference website. Come up with a good title (and an abstract if you like), and write the section/subsection headers.

    Simon Peyton-Jones, who also believes you should write the paper very first, has a terrific presentation (movie ) about writing excellent papers and how to organize them. Rachel Howard talks about kicking off by sketching the key thing that you want to convey—”gesture writing, ” by analogy with “gesture drawing.”

    This file will turn into your final document. Everything you do from now on should be focused on improving it!

    Very likely you should skin out significant sections early on, for all the reasons above. (Add the introduction/motivation, a good example, the method description, and an experimental design.)

    But your very first draft won’t be ideal. As your thinking evolves, you’ll go back and switch the document. You may even switch basic aspects of the treatment. That’s okay. The document is a record of your current thinking, ready to demonstrate to colleagues at any time, and almost ready to submit.

    Any fresh ideas need to end up in the document. So whenever you have a thought about the project, add it instantly into the suitable section of the paper. Sometimes you’ll add it by gracefully editing the current writeup; but more often, you’ll just insert a note to worry about later. Placing these notes in the outline will keep your ideas organized and keep them alive until they are dealt with. (Email or face-to-face discussions will get lost unless you add notes about them!)

    I’m planning to switch to the cool todonotes spandex package. But for now, my notes look like this: where I have included these definitions in the Spandex header:

    The main purpose of your experiments is to produce tables and graphs for the document. These should be produced and included automatically, with minimal fuss and minimal chance for human error.

    For example, write a Makefile or zymake file that will run the experiments. Among other results, this should produce files containing your final tables (as Spandex source) and graphs (e.g. as PNG photos). Your Spandex document will \input the tables and \includegraphics the graphs.

    To print R tables as Spandex, attempt the xtable package (examples ). Also see reporttools. which uses xtable to print summary statistics.

    This treatment permits you to view and share the current results at any time. For your own understanding, you may want to run many more experiments than can be included in the paper. In this case, make a separate “experimental logbook” document that includes and discusses the results of all the experiments. This longer document can also be viewed and collective at any time.

    Every paper should have at least one nice picture. For now, don’t waste time on making it pretty. It’s okay if your diagrams begin out as scanned-in scribbles, or as spoken descriptions of what you will draw. Make them pretty later on, sometime when you need a break, but only once you’re sure they’re in final form.

    Some reasonable options for final figures are PGF/TikZ (for beautiful TeX graphics: use directly or from R or gnuplot), graphviz (for automatic graph layout), and manual drawing programs such as PowerPoint, OmniGraffle, MyPaint, or Inkscape.

    The document is like a code specification

    Writing is a form of thinking and planning. Writing is therefore part of the research process—just as it is part of the software engineering process. When you write a research paper, or when you document code, you are not just explaining the work to other people: you are thinking it through for yourself.

    As you know, it’s bad practice to document code after you write it. The recommended sequence for a coding project is something like this:

    Sell the project to management: you need a big picture.

    [Analogy: This is the abstract and introduction to your paper. You could even commence by mocking up some talk slips that you could use to present your paper.]

    Write a spec that sketches the major ideas behind the code design, and describes how the different components will fit together. The spec will also develop some terminology and notation that you will use via the spec and also in the code.

    [Analogy: The earlier sections of the paper, where you give intuitions, terminology, and notation. Again, you will use the terminology and notation as you code up your experiments. If you code very first and only later on figure out how to present things clearly, then your code will be firmer to go after and won’t match the paper.]

    For each class, method, etc. write header comments that precisely describe its required behavior.

    [Analogy: Later sections of the paper, where you skin out details of the method and experiments.]

    Once you have precisely described what a class or method should do, you can write commented code to implement exactly that description.

    [Analogy: This is where you carry out the claimed experiments. Notice that it comes late in the process.]

    [Analogy: This is where other people read the paper and you see what goes wrong with your cautiously crafted exposition.]

    Of course, neither coding nor research is purely top-down—in practice, there’s feedback. Just as coding will make you rethink parts of the spec, certainly experimentation will make you revise parts of the paper. But crucially, you’ll keep the code and the paper in sync.

    Writing now is a favor to yourself

    You’ll feel so much better once you have a draft! The looming deadline will not be almost so strained. Pull your all-nighters now (on a self-imposed draft deadline), not in the days leading up to the subjugation deadline.

    So get to it, feel virtuous, and have joy! I’ll be blessed to comment, correspond, or collaborate along the way—just point me to your git repository.

    This page online: http://cs.jhu.edu/

    Jason Eisner[email protected] (suggestions welcome)

    Last Mod $Date: 2013/Ten/06 06:07:27 $

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