Introduction

This page sets out some notes, mainly aimed at astronomy graduate research or honours students at the Department of Physics, The University of Auckland. It is intended to provide the answers that I would give in response to some of the questions students usually ask about their first academic writing tasks.

DISCLAIMER
You must read the relevant current Policies and Guidelines. Among these is the Guide to Theses and Dissertations.

What follows on this page are my (N. J. Rattenbury’s) personal opinions. Nothing on this page should conflict with the University’s policies and guidelines. However, if there is a conflict, the official policies and guidelines will always prevail.

Latex

Write in LaTeX. I don’t know of any professional astronomer that doesn’t use LaTeX. The main astronomy journals — ApJ, AJ, MNRAS, etc. receive author-prepared manuscripts in LaTeX for very good reasons. The typesetting provided by LaTeX is excellent and the platform is extremely robust.

Latex is a (Turing complete) computer language. Since we all write computer programmes for our research, learning LaTeX shouldn’t be at all difficult. There are any number of people in the Department who are LaTeX experts, and are able to help if you need it. There is a lot of help available online.

You can write your LaTeX documents in the text editor of your choice, and run LaTeX in the command line, or you can use one of the several integrated development environments which are now available. One of these is TexMaker. However, I use mainly use Overleaf now. This is a cloud supported service for latex and you can collaboratively work on a shared latex document. One of the best ways of getting started with LaTeX is to ask an experienced user to walk you through the basics of a simple document. This is particularly true when it comes time to include your references (via BibTeX).

It can be convenient to use a template to get started. One such template has been provided by Christof Lutteroth, in the Department of Computer Science. See his webpage for more details.

NOTICE: If you use someone else’s template for writing a dissertation for submission, YOU are responsible for making sure that the document conforms to the relevant University regulations.

Syntax, Grammar, Spelling, Typos

I set high standards for written English, scientific or otherwise. I get disturbed when I am handed a poorly-written piece of writing which is supposed to communicate to me the results of a scientific study. There is no excuse for misspelled words. Typographical errors happen, but they should be caught through your proof-reading.

When reading your work, I should be checking the science, not correcting English. Check your work first, before submitting it to me to read.

Time Management

If you want me — or in fact any proof reader — to go through a piece of your written work, you must hand it to them in good time. Don’t expect a high-quality proof-reading job to be made if you don’t give the proof reader enough time to read your work before a deadline. I’m happy with reading through your work a chapter at a time.

From an interview with Winston Lord, who was special assistant and speech writer for National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger:

[…] I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. He called me in the next day and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I said, “Henry, I thought so, but I’ll try again.” So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, “Are you sure this is the best you can do?” I said, “Well, I really thought so. I’ll try one more time.” Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, “Is this the best you can do?” So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.” He then looked at me and said, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”

— From the National Security Archive, The George Washington University, nsarchive.gwu.edu [Accessed 3 June 2015]

Editing

As important, if not more so, than the actual writing, is the editing of your work. It takes effort to edit your work well.

Mark Twain, like most writers, found it easier to write long than short. He received this telegram from a publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

Twain replied:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.

From www.nytimes.com [Retrieved 16 September 2015]

Structure

It is a common question: How do I structure my report/dissertation/thesis? Opinions vary across disciplines and you should consult with research staff in your own Faculty/Department. Here is one way of structuring your work.

Resources on Scientific Writing

This section contains a list of resources which will guide you on how to write academic, scientific English. These resources were compiled by our subject librarian, Michael Parkinson, who is always ready to help physics students with any questions about sourcing information — be it on academic writing or physics.

Here are some notes on how to write an essay on a Physics topic (one-pager PDF, required reading):
Physics-essay

Notes on good scientific writing (two-pager PDF, required reading):
Valenti, 2014 Toward a good scientific writing

Notes on evaluating search results (one-pager PDF, required reading):
Evaluating the search results

Print-only book, but particularly recommended

Available as e-books online

Print-only books

Less relevant

Past Theses

2 thoughts on “Writing Tips/Tools/Thoughts for Research Students in Astronomy

  1. Ronald P Oliver

    Thanks for the tips, wanted to use Latex programming for a few of the Astronomy essays I’ve been writing. And I agree, editing is almost more important than writing!

  2. Fascinating, very nice sharing.

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