Guidelines for Composing Research Papers

When conducting research, it’s simple to lose sight of the purpose of writing and publishing.

The Princeton University Laser Sensing Lab thankfully organizes what we term a “literature review” once a month, when everyone brings in publications they’ve found for their research like a research article and contributes methods that could be helpful to the group as a whole.

Someone made a change during our last meeting. He delivered a paper that he called “the worst paper I’ve ever read,” rather than one that featured intriguing ideas.

As the document was passed around, we all laughed a lot. He was accurate. The paper contained several grammatical errors, and many portions were difficult to understand. Yet, my advisor advised us to not take it lightly. After all, this paper had been released in some way (though if he had any say in it, he would have it retracted). Especially now that the writing season is upon us (hello, senior theses and final papers! ), it served as a wonderful example of what not to do.

Here are some additional dos and don’ts to bear in mind as you write:

1. Be mindful of grammar. Spelling errors give off a very poor impression to your readers and instantly damage your reputation. Which one is most typical? It’s vs It’s. This error frequently appears not just in written documents but also in emails and internet content. Some instances I’ve seen include “development operations are ongoing,” “in motion along our line of sight,” and a long list of others. Don’t worry; these mistakes are common among writers and are simple to overlook. Often, it’s not until I have someone else proofread my work that I discover my errors. But, making grammar corrections is a relatively easy remedy that greatly improves the clarity of your text.

2. Refuse to rationalize subpar writing. “It’s okay if my writing isn’t good; scientists aren’t known for being brilliant writers.” It’s okay if this paper doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t really matter. Indeed, it’s alluring. Yet you don’t want to develop a bad writing habit. And if you were the professor or teaching assistant reading a senseless paper, would you really want to be there?

3. Create content that you would enjoy reading. Although it seems clear, one of the sayings is frequently disregarded. Do you really need to start out with all that jargon? Are you providing your intended audience—whether they be other students or scientists—with enough details in your writing so that they can grasp it? The last thing you might feel like doing after finishing your essay is reading it again. In order to ensure that your logical progressions are natural, you should finish your draft with adequate time—at least one day, if possible—before rereading. A second round of proofreading is also an excellent approach to finding any stray errors.

4. Have someone else proofread your essay. Have someone else proofread your writing if you find it difficult to read it yourself or if you are unable to step back from it long enough to consider whether or not it makes sense. If you wrote the essay, you might not be able to spot unclear or illogical terminology even after reading it over yourself. Yet, having a second set of eyes review your work might be a helpful sanity check. The Writing Center is fantastic for this, but if you’d like more specific advice, seeking assistance from a graduate student in your lab is also a good idea!

And lastly, conduct research! Make a note of the articles that helped you with your literature review. Which dialect do they speak? Is there anything they did that you believe you could have done more effectively? Try to read some of the documents you’re quoting in their entirety. After all, reading excellent writing will improve your own writing.

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