Writing a Thesis/Paper

Writing a thesis or a paper on your work is how you communicate your work to others. The quality of your writing directly influences how your research is perceived and evaluated. Therefore, it is mandatory to invest considerable energy into the quality of your writing.

In the following, I will go through the structure of a typical CS paper or thesis and comment on the important aspects of the respective section.

Structure

CS papers and also (to a certain extent) theses typically follow a similar structure:

This structuring is not set in stone. For example, sometimes it might be better to put related work in front of the main part or coalesce it with the background section. Sometimes, there is no experimental evaluation because the work is entirely theoretic. The frame never changes: Abstract, Introduction, ..., Related Work, Conclusion.

Abstract

The abstract of a paper is typically used by reviewers of a conference to bid for a paper (to express the willingness to review it). Make your abstract short, concise, interesting. Imagine a reviewer looks at all the abstracts of the 350+ papers submitted to the conference. You want the expert reviewers to review your paper, so make it interesting to them.

A good abstract has 5 sentences. See the next section for a more detailed discussion.

In a thesis, the abstract can be a bit longer and is essentially a very brief summary of the thesis that helps people to quickly get an impression what the thesis is about and if they want to continue reading.

Introduction

The purpose of the introduction is to allow other people to inform themselves quickly and efficiently about what you have done. In terms of communication, it is the most important part of your thesis/paper. If this is not very well written, your paper/thesis will have a hard time.

The introduction sets the scene for the entire thesis/paper. If you do this properly, the reader has a clear expectation of the rest of the thesis.

Introductions (similar to abstracts) typically follow the following structure:

Note that the introduction is not a related work section. Although you might want to motivate your work with drawbacks that you identified in earlier work, make sure to not discuss related work in too much breadth. This is done in other parts (see below). Use suitable references to related work where necessary (if you refer to a specific technique directly) but as few as possible.

Be explicit about your contribution. Be sure to make absolutely clear to say what you do, what is new, how it improves on the state of art and what the advantages are. This is what people are interested in. The reader will not try to gather that from a lengthy text. Ideally, you conclude the introduction with a list of bullet points that summarizes your contributions.

Don't be afraid: There is a difference between being clear and bragging. Be clear and factual but never brag.

Background

This part (if necessary) provides background information that is necessary to understand what follows. These are theories, methods, techniques that are considered to belong to the standard repertoire in your field but typically are not part of an undergrad course or textbook, so common knowledge cannot be assumed.

Main Part

The goal of this part is to provide a precise and factual description of your work. It has to be written such that another person is able to reproduce what you have done.

Structure this part well and prepend it with a small introduction that guides the reader through your various findings. Relate to existing work where necessary using proper citations.

This part can be and should be technical and less "exciting" to read. However it has to comprehensively state your findings.

Make sure that you properly cite every piece of text and every figure you reference from the work of others.

Related Work

This part comprehensively sets your work into context with existing work. The purpose of this section is to inform the reader, who is also an expert in your field, of what sets your work apart from other work and where it is similar. It helps researchers in a field to quickly understand in what way your work is different from the work they already know. Provide them this information.

It is not sufficient to just mention and cite related work. You need to put it into the context of your work.

Focus on works that are directly related to your work. You don't need to explain and cite standard notions that have been well-established in textbooks over the last decades. However, in every field there are seminal papers that are not part of, say undergrad textbooks, that need to be cited of your work relies on them.

Conclusion

Summarize the contributions and results of your work and describe the parts of what you learned that is interesting for others.

Assume, you'd be somebody else and you'd be interested in applying your technique. The conclusion should be the part of your work where this person can find the answer to the question "What can I expect?"

If a reader has little time, he/she wants to know what your work is about and how well it worked. This has to be possible by just reading the introduction and the conclusion.

Consider this section as handing over the baton to the next researcher. Ideally, you can also lay out some of the future work that would be interesting to conduct based on your findings.

Language

Here is loose collection of language problems I frequently encounter. Some are specific to German native speakers.

TL;DR

Resources

Here are lists of books and web material that I found helpful. If you're in a hurry, read Strunk and White and watch Simon Peyton Jones' video.

Books

  1. Strunk and White. The Elements of Style.
  2. Vernon Booth. Communicating in Science.
  3. Michael Alley. The Craft of Scientific Writing.

Internet Resources

  1. Simon Peyton Jones. How to write a great research paper.
  2. Derek Dreyer. How to Write Papers so People Can Read Them.
  3. A series of videos by Matthias Dobbelstein on writing theses.
  4. Donald Knuth et al. Mathematical Writing.
  5. Philip Koopman. How to Write an Abstract.
  6. Duke University. Scientific Writing Course.