Saturday, March 29, 2014

How to write your research paper

The legend of Köroğlu

I will start with a story of oppression and an uprising, involving a mythical horse in the process. Way to start a post about writing research papers, huh?

In 16th century Anatolia, there was a corrupt and oppressor mayor in the Bolu state. The mayor one day decided that he should find and gift the best horse in the world to the Sultan. He contacted a very skilled horse breeder. The breeder said the horse that is deserving of the Sultan should be very special, and said none of his horses is worthy of this. He went on a quest for this horse himself. One day he saw some street kids abusing a feeble and awkward-looking foal. He immediately recognized the potential in this foal and bought the foal, and headed for the mayor's palace. The mayor got outraged, being the ignorant oppressor he is, he thought the breeder is mocking him by offering this weak awkward foal. The mayor immediately ordered the breeder to be blinded.

The breeder had a young son, who became devastated by his father's situation. His father was now blind ("kör" in Turkish), and the son later got nicknamed "Köroğlu", the blind's son. The breeder, instead of worrying about his eyes was more worried about the foal, and instructed his son to build a pitch-black stable for the foal. He then instructed his son to constantly tend to the foal and fatten the foal as much as possible. For many months, the foal was made to stay in this pitch-black cave to eat and fatten up. The breeder did not start any training at all. Many months later, the breeder instructed Köroğlu to get this fat horse out and started a strict training regimen for the horse. The fat quickly turned to muscle, and the horse got very lean in a short time.

The legend is that the horse got so fast that it would run over a mud field and would not get any mud on its feet. Köroğlu used this horse to get his father's revenge from the mayor and became a Robin Hood like figure. Here is a link to the 1968 Turkish movie made for commemorating this legend.

Back to writing!

And I claim that a legend about a horse and an outlaw gives great lessons about writing your paper?! I must be nuts!

Give your idea a chance to grow and thrive 

All excellent ideas/papers/design start in a feeble fragile form. Very much like that foal. Don't judge too soon, otherwise you will misjudge. Instead if you can glimpse a sliver of potential, give your idea a chance to grow.

(With experience, you will be able to tell which feeble ideas are promising, which are not. You will get better at it, like the old breeder.)

In this initial phase (the cave phase), don't listen to any critics. Keep this feeble idea close to your chest. You would need to guard it even from your own criticisms early on. Suppress the criticisms for a while. Feed the idea to see what it can become.

Here Jony Ive talks about Steve Jobs' approach to creative work:
"And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished."
Good thing the reviewers don't get to see the first drafts of any idea/paper, otherwise nothing would get published in the conferences or journals.

Fatten it up

In the cave phase, you need to greedily feed and build up your manuscript.

And this is how you do it: Start writing as soon as possible, and write while you do the work. That means, you keep a lab notebook. This doesn't need to be physical notebook. Open a directory for your new research idea, and create a notes.txt file to act as your lab notebook. In this lab notebook, you will be able to explore each sub idea and produce in bulk without any pressure of good/presentable writing. Since nobody is going to see this writing, you won't have restraints and you can go fast. You should come up with new tangential ideas, and explore all potential directions the original idea can grow. See my post about free writing for more information.

(I use the file as my lab notebook. Org-mode in Emacs is great to outline a project, keep track of the progress of each sub-idea, and manage and review ToDo items for the project.)

So feed it, build it up. Fatten it up. At the end of this you will have a fat mess in your hand. Don't feel ashamed about it. Instead, feel proud.

(Warning: If you have to keep twisting and spinning the same idea too many times just to squeeze out a small contribution, that is bad. There should be potential in the idea. Don't try to resuscitate an idea, if it refuses to grow despite your nourishing.)

Train hard: turn fat into muscles! 

This is the coming out of the cave phase. After finding your purpose and voice, you should now try to present it coherently and clearly. Now, you should be ruthless about getting your paper back in shape. Cut ruthlessly to make it lean. Cut the fluffy parts, the unnecessary tangents, and even the parts that can give the wrong vibe and that may lead an unsuspecting reader to a dead-end. Make it succinct and as simple as possible.

Editing is much much easier than starting with nothing and having to write from scratch, especially when the conference deadline is looming. If you haven't tried this approach to writing a paper before, you will be surprised how much easier it is to edit a fluffy mess into a coherent draft than writing from scratch. I have witnessed many times how quick a 20 pages of mess can be edited to form a 10 page good looking draft.

Read the Elements of Style to learn more about how to edit and produce a coherent presentable manuscript.


Don't take horse breeding advice from me, I haven't bred/trained any horses in my life. But you can take the writing advice. I use it every time I write, including this post.

Other related posts

Here are some of my related/nontechnical posts.
How I write 
How I read a research paper
My Advice To My Graduate Students
One Pomodoro, two pomodoro, three pomodoro, four
Black sheep 
Energy approach to life, the universe, and everything
Antifragility from an engineering perspective 

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