How to write papers so they get accepted

This is a very bold and *valuable* talk: The craft of writing effectively. It introduces a no-bullshit approach to academic publishing that will change/upgrade your perspective to writing. This talk may offend you, you may want to reject these ideas initially, but you will eventually realize that this is the reality we live in and you must come to terms with it.
  1. Since you are a researcher, and deal with complicated topics, you need to use your writing for thinking. Writing and thinking feed off of each other, and you need to write to help your thinking. But ultimately writing is not about you or your thinking, it is about the *reader*. After your initial drafts are done, you should reframe your writing to be reader-centric. The reader doesn't care about your work, he cares about what useful things he can learn from it. (In marketing, they have a good saying about this: The customer doesn't want a power drill, he wants a hole in the wall to hang a photo.)
  2. Provide value to your readers. The value of a paper does not come from being new or original. A work can be new or original but still not provide any value, if the readers didn't care about the problem. A sure way to provide value is to show that your work changes the status quo: the community was wrong about a certain thing, and your paper gets things right. (There are polite ways to say "you were all wrong" and if "wrong" is a strong word, you may see this as the "surprise" component in Winston's star.
  3. The function of academic writing is NOT to communicate your ideas, but to change the ideas of an existing community. The readers should be able to gain a new understanding of the world through the lens of your writing. Thus, your writing should argue why it is valuable. Its goal should be to persuade not just explain. 
  4. Know your readers. You can't please different type of readers at once. Even under the same field, different communities have widely different taste. This is part of the reason why a PhD takes 5+ years: you learn about your community and the "code words" that are precious to your community. Identify the people that have power, and give them what they want. (The speaker says tongue-in-cheek that this is why University of Chicago writing program is deemed fascist by some.) 
  5. The writing should be structured as problem and solution. The problem should be motivated by showing that there is an instability (the community is wrong on this), and that by resolving this instability we avoid certain costs and get certain benefits. The literature review should be used for enriching the problem. 

You may get offended with the brash and contentious opinions in item 4, but the diagnosis is not wrong. The quicker you upgrade your perspective on writing to match this approach, the easier it will get for your papers to be accepted.

As for item 4, I think this is the unromantic reality: In academic publishing, you should speak truth to the power, but only those truths that the power is interested in hearing about, and only in a style they endorse. 

I have seen people artificially make their papers more formal and abstruse because that is how you impress the PC of some theory conferences. This is horrible as it makes the papers less accessible, but these are the types of papers that get accepted in those communities. The systems community is not blameless either. Valuing algorithmic contributions more than extensive evaluation and application will likely kill your submission. Some communities expect and enforce a "style" so strong that, even with double-blind reviewing it is not possible to trick reviewers to think you are with the "in-crowd". In elitist conferences, you need to signal your value/style even through your references. If a work appeared in a lesser conference, there is no need to bring it up in related work discussion.

Not all elements of "style" and sense of "community" is bad. Style serves a useful function. Formalism is important for precision. Formal proofs are important to avoid sloppiness and hand-waving. Evaluations keep authors honest. But style can also be used enforced in excessiveness, and that is harmful.

This sense of community and style can be so strong that we have a saying for it in academia. The same course taught by two different instructors could be more different than two different courses taught by the same instructor.

Some of my selected posts on writing:


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