Saturday, March 24, 2012

Best Written Paper

Daniel Lemire pointed to an article on bad writing in science (here if you care to see, not CS-specific), which got me to thinking:  do we (in whatever subcommunity you think of yourself being in) value good writing?  Should we?

One question is what qualifies as good writing in science.  I'm not sure there's any consensus here -- although that's true for writing more generally as well.  While colorful word choice and usage can garner some attention* (and, generally, wouldn't hurt), unlike what some people may think, good writing in science is not a vocabulary exercise.  I find that two key features cover most of what I mean by good writing:

1)  Be clear.
2)  Tell a story.

The two actually tend to go hand in hand.  It helps clarify things for the reader if you have a natural progression -- a story to tell -- and if in advance you find and lay out your story -- what is it that is important that you want to convey to your reader -- your writing will naturally become more clear.  The simple exercise I try to follow (when I'm writing well) is

1)  look at each paragraph
2)  make sure I can state to myself what the point of that paragraph is
3)  make sure that point fits in with the story I'm trying to tell
4)  make sure that point is what is coming out from what I wrote

For really good papers, my co-authors and I do the same thing at a more detailed level, looking at each sentence within a paragraph to that it assists in making the point of of the paragraph.  And yes, this all is easier to do with co-authors;  it's much harder to look critically at your own writing at this level.  

I like to think good writing matters.  I am happy to say that I have received reviews saying that my submission was well written, so clearly some subset of people notice.  (Of course this happens much more often with co-authored papers -- thank you co-authors!)  I certainly think I notice good writing in a paper.

I'd like to believe that good writing increases the chances that one's paper is accepted... but I admit, my perspective both as a reviewer and an author is that the effect is probably small.  Bad writing can kill a paper, but my impression is that good writing is just a minor delta over passable writing in conference reviews.  I can understand the perspective.  Conferences are about getting good, interesting work out in a very timely fashion.  The level of writing, one might expect, is secondary.  (Hence the paper reviews saying "Well written, but not deep/novel/exciting enough...")

There is one caveat to the above.  I believe that trying to write clearly forces a researcher to refine and think more carefully about their own work, giving one more insight, and thereby making the work better.  It's said that you haven't really learned something until you've had to teach it to someone else.  The very act of having to "teach" your work, through writing it well, can improve your work.  I've often had interesting ideas arise in the act of writing a paper, when confronted with what felt like holes that needed to be filled.

I also think the value in the writing is longer term.  I believe that well written papers are more likely to pass the test of time, although I admit to having no particular evidence to back that conception.  Similarly, I believe that writing well is good for one's standing in the community longer-term:  if your papers are more pleasurable to read, more people will read and remember them.  Of course ideas are primary, but innovative ideas can have a larger impact based on the quality of the writing explaining them.    

Do you find writing quality matters?  Do you think it should?  We give "Best Paper" awards at (some) conferences.  Perhaps there should be a specific award for "Best Written Paper", to encourage quality writing.  Of course, then we'd have to find people to judge writing for such an award, and we all know scientists can't write.

* Some authors like to choose a catchy title, or an amusing acronym for their system.  Nothing wrong with that, but I think the emphasis on these hooks is easily overstated.  


Anonymous said...

Thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

The older (and more impatient) I grow, the more I think writing quality matters. Writing passably is okay if you just want to get your paper in to a conference. However, if you actually want people to read your paper, you should write it well. There are many occasions where I started reading a paper because the conference talk captured my interest, but stopped reading after a little while because of the poor writing quality. This is not such an uncommon phenomenon, and I imagine I am less likely to cite a paper too if I don't read it. :-) So consistently writing poorly does hurt one in the long run.

Henry Y said...

Hi Michael,

In your opinion, what are some of the best written papers you've come across?

Paul Beame said...

If only there were a clear standard of what "best written" means...

The notion of what a well written paper should contain is not universal between fields. In TCS, the preferred style is to include not only precise mathematical statements and their proofs but also to give intuition for definitions and arguments. That intuition is not always appreciated in mathematics; indeed, there are authors who want to avoid intuition because of the risk of biasing the reader to think along only one line when reading a paper (and even making them more susceptible to agreeing with erroneous reasoning).

Similarly, in what level of generality should one state definitions and results? Should one state them in the most natural way given the original motivation or application, or should one choose the most general definition and statements? I have had debates with co-authors on which of these choices makes a better written paper.

To whom should a paper be addressed? Experts or a general audience? The FOCS 2012 CFP, for example, contains new language: The submission should be addressed to a broad spectrum of theoretical computer scientists, not solely to experts in the subarea.

Can a paper be considered well written if the arguments are necessarily complicated? (Likely not if they are unnecessarily complicated.)

My sense is that in TCS such a "best written paper" prize would involve having a beautiful or surprising proof rather than anything to do with the overall quality of the writing.

Anonymous said...

In TCS, the preferred style is to include not only precise mathematical statements and their proofs but also to give intuition for definitions and arguments. That intuition is not always appreciated in mathematics; indeed, there are authors who want to avoid intuition because of the risk of biasing the reader to think along only one line when reading a paper (and even making them more susceptible to agreeing with erroneous reasoning).

I often hear TCS people say this, but as a mathematician I don't think it's got any truth to it. All fields value intuition and some form of motivation, and the only question is what form it takes.

Intuition is generally rather difficult to convey to non-experts (which is why expository writing is difficult, even though you don't need to do any original research). When you read something from a field you aren't actively working in, it often seems like it's leaving out crucial intuition or background, while emphasizing rather arcane points. Partly this is because most scientists aren't particularly good writers, and the general standard could in fact be higher, but partly it's because most papers really are aimed at specialists. (And this is even true in TCS: decades ago, a beginning grad student could pick a FOCS or STOC paper and just start reading, with no special background, but that was a sign of a brand new field, and it's getting less and less true.)

There's also one big cultural difference between TCS and pure mathematics, and that's whether internal or external motivation is more valued. Pure mathematicians tend to judge work according to how natural or beautiful it is, while CS theorists often talk at length about the scenarions it arose in or could be useful in (even if they don't care at all about the details of these applications and have no intention of ever trying their techniques out in the real world). Maybe this is what you meant by intuition, but I see motivation and intuition as very different things. Motivation is what you say when someone asks you why you care about this problem, whereas intuition is why you say when someone asks for help in understanding your work.

Daniel Lemire said...

What you did not mention is that there is a tension between satisfying the reviewers and writing well. You'd think that writing well would favor you, but I actually think it can work against you. If someone expresses a result so clearly that it appears trivial, then they are likely to be pushed aside in favor of someone who "impresses" you by how he can solve amazingly complex problems... that is, if you reduce the apparent complexity of the problems, it works against you.

That's one reason why I think it is easier to write well in science if you feel relatively safe professionally.

The older I get, the more I value good writing and the less I care about what the reviewers will say.

(People are apparently afraid to use their own name when commenting on your blog?)

Vijay D said...

Simon Peyton-Jones has a talk about this that I found quite insightful.