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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
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):
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
- Silyn-Roberts, H. (2012). Writing for science : A practical handbook for science, engineering and technology students (3rd ed.). Auckland: Prentice Hall/Pearson Education. http://librarysearch.auckland.ac.nz/UOA2_A:Combined_Local:uoa_alma21159875470002091 ENGINEERING LIBRARY Main Collection (T11 .S56 2012 ) also a 2-hr and a 3-day copy in Engineering Short Loans
Available as e-books online
- Engineering Lib T11 .S55 2013 Silyn-Roberts, H. (2013). Writing for science and engineering : Papers, presentations and reports (2nd ed., Elsevier insights). — Elsevier, 2013. available online (ScienceDirect)
- 808.066 W21 English for writing research papers / by Adrian Wallwork. — Springer, 2011. — available online (SpringerLink)
- 808.06651 H63 1998 Handbook of writing for the mathematical sciences / Nicholas J. Higham. 2nd ed. — Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics c1998. — available online (e-book SIAM)
- 808.042 F65 Writing and thinking: a handbook of composition and revision. / by Norman Foerster … and J.M. Steadman, jr. Expanded ed. — Paper Tiger, 2000.
- 808.042 M25 Writing for conferences: a handbook for graduate students and faculty / Leo Mallette and Clare Berger. — Greenwood, 2011.
- 808.0420711 S97 Stylish academic writing / Helen Sword. — Harvard University Press, 2012
- 808.0420712 S63 Teaching students to write research reports / Peter Smagorinsky … [et al.]. — Heinemann, 2012. [Language teaching]
- 808.066001 M34 2011 10 steps in writing the research paper / Peter T. Markman … [et al.]. 7th ed. — Barrons Educational Series, 2011.
- 808.0665 H71 Scientific writing and communication : papers, proposals, and presentations / Angelika H. Hofmann. — Island Press, 2009.
- 808.06651 R12 Write mathematics right : principles of professional presentation, exemplified with humor and thrills / L. Radhakrishna. Alpha Science International Ltd., 2013.
- 808.0666 C27 Writing scientific research articles : strategies and steps / Margaret Cargill and Patrick O’Connor. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2013.
- 808.0666 E53 2005 Writing guidelines for science and applied science students / Lisa Emerson and John Hampton, eds. 2nd ed. — Thomson/Dunmore Press, 2005.
- 808.0666 H75 2014 Enjoy writing your science thesis or dissertation! : a step-by-step guide to planning and writing a thesis or dissertation for undergraduate and graduate science students / Elizabeth Fisher, Richard Thompson and Daniel Holtom. 2nd ed. Imperial College Press, 2014.
- 808.88 D261 Shape of content : creative writing in mathematics and science / edited by Chandler Davis, Marjorie Wikler Senechal, Jan Zwicky. — A K Peters, c2008. — Reviewed: 2010f:00001; 1154.00006