Technical Writing Advice Collection

Succeeding at Grant Writing by Doing Thorough Background Research : : UMass Lowell

  • Background research of your topic area is a very important part of the grant writing process. By gathering data and information you will be able to convince the funder that you know what you are talking about. You will be better able to convince the funder that your idea will have a positive impact on the community. Research will sometimes make the difference in whether or not you get the grant money that you are seeking.
  • Once you decide on the type of project for which you will seek funding, you must learn everything that you can about the program you want to start. This will help you to make many strong points when writing your grant. Statistics often help to show that the program is necessary and will benefit the population you want to serve. Imagine how much stronger your proposal will be if you can include background statistics in your grant such as: Children with a mentor are 55% less likely to skip school or 65% of men who attended a batterers group did not batter women ever again.


How to write a good research paper and give a good research talk

  • How to give a good research talk
  • How to write a good research paper
  • Powerpoint slides of the talk: Zipped PPT (400k)  or PDF (850k).
Collected Advice on Research and Writing
Writing Systems and Networking Articles

  • Writing Technical Articles

    The notes below apply to technical papers in computer science and electrical engineering, with emphasis on papers in systems and networks.

  • A good research paper has a clear statement of the problem the paper is addressing, the proposed solution(s), and results achieved. It describes clearly what has been done before on the problem, and what is new.
  • Introduction (brief!): introduce problem, outline solution; the statement of the problem should include a clear statement why the problem is important (or interesting).
    • Avoid general motivation in the abstract. You do not have to justify the importance of the Internet or explain what QoS is.
    • Be sure that the introduction lets the reader know what this paper is about, not just how important your general area of research is. Readers won’t stick with you for three pages to find out what you are talking about.
    • The introduction must motivate your work by pinpointing the problem you are addressing and then give an overview of your approach and/or contributions (and perhaps even a general description of your results).  In this way, the intro sets up my expectations for the rest of your paper — it provides the context, and a preview.
    • Internet drafts must be marked “work in progress”. Make sure that they have been replaced by newer versions or RFCs. Any Internet Draft reference older than six months should automatically be suspicious since Internet Drafts expire after that time period.
  • Other References

    • Top 10 tips for writing a paper
    Yale Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

    • Science Writing workshop
    Writing Systems and Networking Articles
    Locus Online Features: Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction
    Practical Technical Writing Advice
    Write good papers

      • Pick a new problem nobody has worked upon. Define the problem and be the first to propose a solution. This is the best way to get highly cited and become famous.
      • Try to explain something significant nobody has managed to explain.
      • Improve by at least an order of magnitude what others have done.
    • A sexy start: tell the reader early why he should read your paper. Don’t summarize, sell!
    • A review of related work
    • Relevant and non-obvious theoretical results: it is easier for people to build on your work if there is some theory and it helps give people confidence in your work.
    • A picture can help tremendously in communicating difficult ideas.
    • A conclusion telling us about future work and summarizing (again) the strong points of the paper.
    • 5. What a good paper should not contain
    • Are the title and the abstract geared toward making the paper attractive?
    • Do you summarize your contribution in the introduction?
    • 8. How to write more than one good paper

      Write daily for at least 15 to 30 minutes, ideally two hours. Studies show this is the key to becoming a prolific writer.

    • 9. Further reading
      • toread
    Advice on Writing Proposals – particularly to NSF

    • Advice on Writing
      Proposals to the National Science Foundation
    • All proposals should answer the following questions in one form or another.


        • What is the problem being addressed? (What is the goal of  the research being proposed? What is the hypothesis being  tested?)
        • Why is the problem important and interesting?
        • What will you DO to address the problem? If you complete  the plan, will that bring us closer to an answer to the  problem?
        • Do you have the resources (equipment, grad students, access  to industry …) necessary to complete the research?
    • Objectives and Expected Significance
            What are the main scientific challenges? Emphasize what the new ideas are. Briefly describe the project’s major goals and their impact on the state of the art.

      Clearly state the question you will address:

          • Why is it important? What makes something important varies with the field. For some fields, the intellectual challenge should be emphasized, for others the practical applications should be emphasized.
          • Why is it an interesting/difficult/challenging question? It must be neither trivial nor impossible.
    • 2.2 Background and Technical Need
          • What long-term technical goals will this work serve?
          • What are the main barriers to progress? What has led to success so far and what limitations remain? What is the missing knowledge?
          • What aspects of the current state-of-the-art lead to this proposal? Why are these the right issues to be addressing now?
          • What lessons from past and current research motivate your work. What value will your research provide? What is it that your results will make possible?
          • What is the relation to the present state of knowledge, to current work here & elsewhere? Cite those whose work you’re building on (and whom you would like to have review your proposal). Don’t insult anyone. For example, don’t say their work is “inadequate;” rather, identify the issues they didn’t address.

          Surprisingly, this section can kill a proposal. You need to be able to put your work in context. Often, a proposal will appear naive because the relevant literature is not cited. If it looks like you are planning to reinvent the wheel (and have no idea that wheels already exist), then no matter how good the research proposal itself is, your proposal won’t get funded. If you trash everyone else in your research field, saying their work is no good, you also will not get funded. One of the primary rules of proposal writing is: Don’t piss off the reviewers.

      You can build your credentials in this section by summarizing other people’s work clearly and concisely and by stating how your work uses their ideas and how it differs from theirs.


    • This should be equivalent to a PhD thesis proposal for the big leagues. Write to convince the best person in your field that your idea deserves funding. Simultaneously, you must convince someone who is very smart but has no background in your sub-area. The goal of your proposal is to persuade the reviewers that your ideas are so important that they will take money out of the taxpayers’ pockets and hand it to you.


    • This the part that counts. WHAT will you do? Why is your strategy an appropriate one to pursue? What is the key idea that makes it possible for to answer this question? HOW will you achieve your goals? Concisely and coherently, this section should complete the arguments developed earlier and present your initial pass on how to solve the problems posed. Avoid repetitions and digressions.


    • In general, NSF is more interested in ideas than in deliverables. The question is: What will we know when you’re done that we don’t know now? The question is not: What will we have that we don’t have now? That is, rather than saying that you will develop a system that will do X, Y and Z, instead say why it is important to be able to do X, Y and Z; why X, Y and Z can’t be done now; how you are going to go about making Z, Y and Z possible; and, by the way, you will demonstrate X, Y and Z in a system.


    • 2.5 Plan of work
    • Present a plan for how you will go about addressing/attacking/solving the questions you have raised.  Discuss expected results and your plan for evaluating the results. How will you measure progress?

    • Include a discussion of milestones and expected dates of completion. (Six months is the about the smallest time chunk you should include in an NSF proposal.) You are not committed to following this plan – but you must present a FEASIBLE plan to convince the reviewers that you know how to go about getting research results.


    • For new PIs, this is often the hardest section to write. You don’t have to write the plan that you will follow no matter what. Think of it instead as presenting a possible path from where you are now to where you want to be at the end of the research. Give as much detail as you can. (You will always have at least one reviewer who is a stickler for details.)


    Table of Contents
    Publishing – or How to get Out of Grad School
    Anatomy of a Rejection
    Collected Advice on Research and Writing
    How to Write a Good Research Paper

    Graduate Research, Writing, and Careers in Computer Science

    • Writing a Thesis
    • Presenting Research
    • Writing Research Proposals

    About Neil Rubens

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