Top-Five Lists for Writing Advice

After reading a lot of exams, reports, and theses, after a while I encounter the same problems over and over again. Now a short list of suggestions won't get very far in improving your answers or the correctness of your conclusions, however by making your writing more accessible and easier to read it can only garner a more positive response from the reader / grader.

Top Five Exam-Writing Advice

  1. Very important: Make it very clear what your answer is. The grader is not obliged to "find" the answer in a page of equations. Ideally the answer should be circled, underlined, or clearly stated.

  2. Start your answer for each question on a new page.

  3. Always make it clear which question, and which part of which question you are answering!!! The FIRST thing you should write on the page is Question & Part, e.g., 2(c).

  4. Make sure you actually answer everything that is being asked. That is, actually read the whole question.

  5. In literally over 90% of exams I grade, students answer question 1 first, then question 2, etc. So if Q1 is easy, students are confident and do well; if Q1 is hard, students waste time there and the average drops. Read over the exam and begin by answering the questions you know.

Top Five Lab / Assignment Advice

  1. Make it clear which question you're answering.

  2. Be brief; length may be thorough, but is not fun to read or grade. This doesn't mean to be vague; just say whatever needs saying and then move on.

  3. Do not just lump a pile of figures at the end of a lab. Figures should be numbered, should have a caption describing what the figure is showing, and should definitely be referenced by your text / writeup.

  4. Do not just stick a bunch of pages of code at the end of a lab. If code is to be useful, then
    • Each major function or script starts on a new page
    • Each function has clear name given to it, and has several lines of comments describing its purpose / parameters etc.
    • Precede the code by a page giving a brief overview of things; for example, a list of the functions and their page numbers.

Top Five Work Report / Workshop Report Advice

  1. Every report and project has to have an Introduction and a Conclusion. Workshop projects and theses MUST list future work or recommendations for future study.

  2. Every document needs to have numbered pages. Why you wouldn't number pages is something I can't understand.

  3. Every document longer than about 4 pages needs a Table of Contents. A List of Figures or List of Tables is required only for theses.

  4. Don't number sections past three levels of depth (e.g., Section 3.2.4). Four levels of numbering gets pretty tedious, and suggests that the document is poorly organized. Also, you shouldn't have a section number and/or Table of Contents entry for anything less than about half a page in length. I routinely see Tables of Contents with about 10 entries for three pages --- this is bad.

  5. Bullets and lists are perfectly fine, however these must appear within paragraphs consisting of complete sentences. No part of the actual writing (prose) of your document can be in point form.

Top Five Graduate Project / Thesis Advice

  1. Do not use Microsoft Word. Do use LaTex!

    Latex is not fun to use, and it can be stubborn. However for a long technical document there is no contest between Word and LaTex.

    Put it this way: I have never encountered anyone who moved from Latex to Word, but I know multiple students who, in desperation, abandoned Word after typing most of their thesis and redid it in Latex.

  2. By far the most common problem concerns references. If you EVER mention "the field", "widely used", "generally believed", "there has been interest in" etc. then you have to give references!!!

    Any time to state a major fact or idea that you don't develop yourself then you require a reference. Without a reference you could just be making things up.

    Use only last names in referencing other people's work, never first name or initials.

  3. If you have a "List of Figures" after the table of contents, do not give the ENTIRE figure caption, since most of it makes NO sense out of context. It is very common to see theses with pages and pages of totally useless captions. Instead, give a brief, shortened version of the caption (LaTex supports this, look up the \caption command).

  4. Make sure that image figures print properly. Many colour and greyscale images which look good on a monitor will print poorly. See here for details.

  5. Do not insert figures (except very tiny ones) into the flow of the text. Figures should always appear at the top of a page or separately on a page of figures.