Term Paper

Writing Tips

Here are some tips that you may find useful.

Structure

  • Identify a well-defined topic area as early as possible. Changing your focus is fine, but you may find that it requires substantial rewriting to keep things clear.
  • Work through and understand the physics before writing. You should do this over Spring Break. This will ensure that you have a well-defined topic before you start writing. You will find that this will make structuring the paper infinitely easier.
  • Make sure the main points of your paper are clearly indicated. This is especially important for scientific writing, since the reader can easily get bogged down in details. Your main points should be highlighted by the structure of the paper as well as mentioned in the introduction and/or abstract.
  • Write the abstract and, possibly, the introduction last.
  • After you have your outline ready, don’t be afraid to draft later sections before earlier sections. If you understand the last half of your argument better than the first, start by writing the last half. Doing so will help you think through how to understand and explain the first half.

Style

  • In thinking about both style and structure, remember that you are writing a scientific paper and not a work of literature. The writing in great works of literature typically has multiple meanings, and can be understood in many ways, at different levels. It can be read differently by readers at different times or with different backgrounds. It often makes veiled allusions to other great literature. Over the years, great literature takes on meanings that go beyond those intended consciously by its author. In contrast, the central purpose of a scientific paper is the clear communication of your ideas to your readers, with no ambiguity, multiple meanings or veiled allusions. Your goal is to ensure that every one of your readers, who may indeed have varying backgrounds, understands your ideas in precisely the way that you intend. This means that clarity and precision are your paramount goals. You should seek to ensure that no reader can misunderstand what you intend to communicate in any sentence that you write, even should they willfully try to misunderstand you. To this end, write in simple, declarative sentences, avoid contorted constructions and always aim for clarity.
  • Feel free to use whichever voice you are most comfortable with. “I will show,” “we will show” or “it will be shown” are all fine. For unknown reasons, some students seem to think that personal pronouns are banned and the passive voice is required. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good scientific writing should be animated and compelling. Your paper should “tell a physics story”. I find the overuse of the passive voice to be deadening. Don’t be dull. Clarity and precision come first, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this can only be accomplished via boring your reader to tears. Not true.
  • Short sentences often are more effective. If you must, for whatever reason, use a long sentence, especially one with many asides, clauses and qualifications—and these sometimes cannot be avoided in technical prose—try at least to start the sentence with something related to its main point, rather than meandering into it at the end. If a sentence would work just as well by deleting a word, you should usually delete that word.
  • Try to lead your reader along, motivating their interest, building up the physics ground work you need them to understand, drawing them into the story you are telling, and working up to a compelling conclusion.
  • All the advice I’ve given you about style is just as important when, later in life, you find yourself preparing a lecture or a seminar.

Some Details

  • Be rigorously consistent in your notation, even at the risk of being repetitive.
  • Clearly define every quantity that you introduce. It is acceptable to do this immediately either before the quantity is used, or immediately after. An example of this is: “The hydrogen atom potential is

        (\displaystyle V = -\frac{e^2}{r}\) ,

       where \(e\) is the electron charge and \(r\) is the distance between the electron and the proton.”

  • Avoid ambiguous references, such as “this shows”. Instead, use references like “Eq. 4.1 shows.” The LaTeX commands \label and \ref are useful here.

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