Writing Advice: The Paper "Recipe"

Let me tell you a little trick that I tell all the students:

sentence, paragraph, page

Mike’s paper recipe:

  1. come up with 1 sentence that tells the “story” of the paper - the main message. you need to make this into one sentence. if the sentence is a long, run-on sentence (or is a paragraph, not a sentence), you don’t have a focused enough message.

    Keep the sentence in view at all times (print it out in big letters and put it next to your computer as you work!

  2. write the 1st paragraph of the paper - how you will hook the reader in, introduce the problem, … This is not the abstract.

    Starting with the beginning of the paper is important since it focuses on “what the paper is”. It also exposes challenges in wording: how are you going to explain it to a reviewer who doesn’t know the terminology you want to us?

  3. write a 1 page outline of the paper in each part, keep in mind that your goal is to tell the “story” of the paper - which is why the sentence is so important.

Note: I do not recommend starting with the outline (#3), or the abstract (#2 is not the abstract).

The additional advice below is how to think about doing these things, and some details about how to write the introduction after you have the sentence/paragraph/page.

The new recipe below can help you think about “the sentence” - you might include writing them as part of step 1, or mixed in with step 2, or as part of writing the introduction after completing step 3.

Update (3/6/2015)…

Here are a few other questions you should try to answer while developing those three things:

  1. Our key idea is…
  2. Our primary contribution is …
  3. The contributions of this paper are: (list)

The first two of those should be sentences. Not run-ons. Not lists. Your “primary” or “key” thing must be a thing, not 3.

Here’s a nice article on Tomorrow’s Professor about writing. They echo my feelings about the importance of the “sentence.” Some of their other advice, I don’t implement myself - but wish I did! They have a lot of good articles (I stopped reading it about 10 years ago).

Addition (9/25/2018) - sent from Mike to Manfred, Sept 2018 …

Here’s another set of questions that is often useful to think about: The 5 questions:

  1. What is the PROBLEM
  2. Why is it interesting
  3. Why is it hard
  4. Why do other approaches fail
  5. How is our approach different

The new paper recipe - New thing, March 2019

This is based on how the intro needs to “work”.

The intro has to do 4 things. I think there should be a single sentence that answers each, which makes it easy for a reader to identify/get a summary of these things. Some intros are less explicit, but I think all good intros address these points.

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What is the solution? (what is this paper)
  3. What is the key idea? (why is this a paper)
  4. So What?

1. What is the problem?

This usually gets set up by saying what happens now, and then gets to the “However”. The first part is something the reader can connect to (the world they know). Then you connect it to the new stuff by defining the problem. This common pattern is discussed in the Williams and Bissup Style book.

Key sentence 1: However, … (we have a problem)

2. What is the solution?

What does this paper give the reader? Hopefully its an answer to the question/problem set up in 1:

Key sentence 2: In this paper we … (give a solution)

3. What is the key idea / takeaway?

At some point, you need to say why it was worth writing a paper about this. An explicit contribution statement can do this. But I think its even better if you can identify an intellectual core from which the paper will build. What made it possible for you to solve this problem (where no one else has before).

Key sentence 3: Our key idea is … (give an intellectual core)

4. So What?

Why should the reader care? What actual progress have you made at addressing the solution? Why is the world a better place with the ideas in your paper in it?

I don’t have a formulaic sentence for this. It can take many forms. One common pattern is: Our results/system/method/technique/ideas enables/provide/allows …


I don’t think that every paper has to have the formulaic sentences as explicit sentences in simple form. But I do think that writing these 4 sentences early in the writing process is valuable. If you can’t express these 4 functions concisely, you will have problems building a coherent paper.

Other Resources

Best Book on Writing - Ever

The absolute best book on writing I’ve ever seen is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Williams and Bizup. Note that the 12th edition is different than early editions, and is formatted in a way that is much easier. This book was recommended to me by some of my English Professor colleagues. It is truly amazing because it makes good writing into a procedural process. It gives specific advice on how to think about writing.

Get this book and look at it. It will change the way you think about writing. It will give you specific things you can do to make your writing better. It will not only tell you what to do, it will tell you why, and how to learn to do it. I wish I practiced all of its lessons.

Yes, there are plenty of other good books and writing. But no other book I’ve seen is as actionable. It explains what to do, why to do it, and how to learn to do it. It is a great mix of “levels”: it considers everything from how to write good sentences to how to organize papers.

Other choices: not an exhaustive list, but other books that I have looked at over the years:

  • Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a timeless classic. I like the illustrated edition.
  • Zinsser’s On Writing Well is another classic.
  • I found Pinker’s The Sense of Style to be interesting because it related cognitive science to writing. It explains why good writing is more effective with real scientific depth. It is great at the “why” of good writing, but less helpful at the how. This article on a key point will give you the main idea in 2 seconds.

Quick Article with Easy Points

I like this article 3 Ways to Make Your Writing Clearer. In particular, the “since the dawn of time” comment really resonated with me. All of these echo what is in Williams and Bizzup - but these are 3 little quick tricks. The three points, which state rich advice in a wonderfully concise manner:

  1. Cut the “since the dawn of time” opening and get right to the point
  2. Turn those descriptive topic sentences into topic sentences that make claims
  3. Make sure people are doing things in your sentences, unless you don’t want them to be doing things

I love these - since they get 3 key points from Williams fast.

Some other references

Seth Hutchinson, IEEE Trans Robotics, on how to think about revising papers in response to reviews: Surviving the Review Process. This echoes what I tell people, but it comes from a more authoritative source. A favorite quote:

If a Reviewer Does Not Understand Your Paper, Take Responsibility