Research 101: Writing tips and tricks I


Emma Hamel
Alumni Research Assistant
Nickvash Kani
Research Assistant Professor

December 12, 2022

These are just a few tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years. Not everything is applicable to your case, but I would give anything you haven’t tried before a shot.

Word vomit is your friend

One of the hardest things to do in research is to write. It’s not fun and it’s a long process. Unfortunately, it is the part of research that matters most. So when you’re staring at that blank screen, I have two words for you: word vomit. I don’t care what you write just write something, you can edit it later. There’s a quote that I think is relevant:

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material. - Michelangelo

The trick is getting that initial block of material and the easiest way to get that is simply word vomit.
Write whatever thought is going through your head, write a summarization of a relevant paper for the background, write a description of a graph, hell write an outline of the section, and then write an outline of each of the outlined items. Just write something and hopefully you’ll find that once you get over that initial blank page, the rest of the paper will simply flow out.

Write as much as you can as fast as you can and once you have a very rough manuscript, you can edit it down into something not god-awful.

Have lots of figures

Have you ever read a technical paper and you get to a page that is just a complete block of text (has no math/figures)? What’s your first reaction? Mine is usually “Ugh….”

Reviewers are just people and no one likes staring at a solid page of text. This is just one of many reasons why figures are important. No one reads the entire text but almost everyone looks at all the figures. When used correctly, figures can illustrate concepts in far less space than text which makes them especially useful in papers with page limits.

The main point is use figures. My personal rule of thumb is that there should be more figures than there are pages. Depending on the topic, that might not be always possible but learning to draw diagrams and plots is a big part of writing papers.

Use figures to start your writing

The other good thing about figures is that they give structure to your paper before you even start writing. Hence, when you eventually do start writing, the text flows out much easier. Many academics like to generate all their figures/plots before writing a single line of text. I prefer a three-phase approach: make an initial round of diagrams/plots that serves as a story-board of your manuscript, write some text, go back and regenerate or make new figures wherever I find myself spending a lot of text to explain an illustrable concept.

Rapid-fire tips!

Soem more breif tips and tricks we learned the hard way (so you don’t have to).


Some useful links the group members have foudn useful over the years: