Writing My First Paper


In the world of academia, getting published is an essential part of one's career. As a graduate student, you're expected to be working on at least 1 or 2 papers per year where you're the lead author. One of my favorite comics had a great little explanation of what your rank on a paper really means depending in whether you're first, second, third, etc. author. I had a good laugh about it after I understood what it really meant...mainly because it's kind of true.

In my field of study (HCI) the projects that we work on are published in conferences related to the topic of the project. For instance, a project related to new interaction designs for children's science education could be published in the proceedings of the popular conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), or the smaller niche conference for Interaction Design and Children (IDC). The more papers you get published and the more citations they get, the more recognized you become.

About 3 weeks ago, I wrote my first demo paper after only deciding to write it 1.5 weeks before the deadline. Mind you, this wasn't a hardcore paper like the usual full papers that are 8-10 pages long and peer-reviewed (aka. the big leagues). No, this was a simple paper that would allow me to demo the project I had worked on so hard the previous semester. But out of this experience I came to realize how different it was to write a paper that is meant to be published. Writing a soon-to-be-published paper, for me, required brainwashing everything I ever knew about writing papers and starting fresh. I always wondered how the papers I read sounded so polished and sophisticated and smart. Now I'm certainly not a professional after writing only one paper, but I certainly did learn a thing or two. For those of you who are new this writing world, I present:

The Six Commandments of Writing A Conference Paper! 

*cue epic sounds effects*

(also, yes, 6 commandments... I'll provide more once I've gathered the experience)

  1. Thou shalt find as much literature and related work as possible to back up your argument. Your work means nothing without those ~20-30 related papers that looked into all sorts of ways to perform bits and pieces of your work.

  2. Thou shalt organize all ideas before writing. Seriously, if you don't, you're going to miss half the things you wanted to say in the paper. Plus it helps with the flow of the paper and it gives you an idea of how the paper will look like before you begin writing.
  3. Thou shalt iterate on your writing at least a thousand times before submitting your paper. If I were a real-estate agent for papers, my motto would be Iterate! Iterate! Iterate! It's absolutely vital for you to iterate on your paper to mold and shape it into a really good paper. I ended up having about 10 versions of my paper before I submitted it. If I had started writing sooner, I would have probably ended up with 30 versions.
  4. Thou shalt leave time in between iterations of new versions of your paper. Since I was on a tight schedule, I needed to write and iterate on my paper almost every day to finish in time for the deadline. Very bad idea. It was difficult for me to conjure up less colloquial ways of saying certain sentences when I had looked at that same sentence for 4 hours the day before. Leave 2-3 days between editing sections of your paper if possible. This way, you come back to writing with a fresh mind reading that same sentence and thinking "...what was I on when I wrote that?"
  5. Thou shalt refrain from writing colloquially. The first version of your paper will probably sound way too colloquial to be publish-worthy. By that I mean phrases like "sheds light on" or "I found that" . These are phrases that are used in every day conversation. Usually, during your iterations, you'll catch little colloquial phrases like this. Another reason why the 3rd and 4th commandment are so important.
  6. Thou shalt never be satisfied. There's always something that you can do better on! Now I don't mean that you should never ever be satisfied to the point where you don't submit the paper at all. By this I mean that you should always strive to work a little more on that paragraph that just doesn't seem to sound quite right. Make it perfect. You never know, it may even lead you to a Best Paper award.

Hopefully this helps anyone who has no idea of what writing a paper is like...