Writing papers and theses

It’s August, which means that students are finishing up their research master or master theses. Here is some advice that I give most of them at one point or another, and I think also Ph.D. students may not be aware of all of the following. I’ll focus on the form for now, and will talk about the contents of a good paper at a later point in time. 

Let’s start with the very basics. You want to make your paper to be pleasant and easy to read in terms of the font size. My usual advice is to use a font like Times with a size of 11pt, to change the spacing to 1.5 or double space, and to use margins of 3cm in the top and in the bottom, and 2.5cm on the left and right.

Footnotes are usually placed after the end of a sentence, after the full stop. And acronyms should be defined before being used. You can do this by writing out the acronym and putting it in parentheses right after that. From then on you can use it. Particular sections or figures you refer to should start with capital letters. So, you would say “in the previous section”, but “in Section 3”.

Equations should only be numbered when you refer to them. Also, when you have an equation that is a “displayed formula” (so takes a whole line) and the sentence ends with that equation, then the equation should end with a full stop in it. When the text continues after the equation, then there should sometimes be a comma, for instance because the equation uses something that is defined afterwards using the expression “where”.

Overall, I think the best advice I can given is to be very careful so that the writing is of high quality. First of all, the English should be correct. There should not be any typos, and you should make extensive use of the spell checker. Then, the references should be in good order.

The following mostly applies to Ph.D. students in economics and related disciplines. When you’re writing papers, you should definitely use LyX or LaTeX together with BibTeX. Also references to figures, tables, equations, sections, and so on should be programmed so that when you change the structure of the document or insert a section or another figure, all the references are updated. This will save you a lot of time in the future, when you go through the 10th or so revision of a paper.

Generally, learn from others. In an earlier post I’ve already suggested that you should read papers in top 5 journals. Not all of them are well-written. But the chance that you get a well-written paper is higher than in other journals. Look at how introductions are structured, how the research is motivated. And spend a lot of time working out the arguments.

Andrew Chesher told me once, when I was visiting UCL as a Ph.D. student, that one may want to think about the following structure: this is what I’m doing > this is why I’m doing it and why it’s interesting > this is how I’m doing it > this is what I find. I think this is a great way to think about presenting research. He also said that academic papers should not have any superfluous written text and that for every word one should ask oneself whether it’s really necessary. Thereby, one can make text shorter and ultimately more clear.

Always make sure you use easy to understand and short sentences, mostly active tense, and that each paragraph roughly corresponds to one line of thought. But don’t be too mechanical.

Respect the reader by explaining well. Think of your reader as not being an expert on the topic you’re writing on, but as being smart and having a general education in economics. That way, you will not make the mistake of not explaining things that may be clear to you, but not to most readers.

And before I forget: many students write that “coefficients are significant”, but it should actually say that they are “significantly different from zero”.

If you want to learn more, have a look at my earlier post on the challenge of writing, where I also provide a reference to Silvia’s book. And if you’re interested in working some more on your writing, you may also want to consider having a look at a classic, the “Elements of Style“.


About kleintob

Tobias Klein is an Associate Professor at Tilburg University. He is an economist by training and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Mannheim, Germany. Before that he visited the University of California at Berkeley Ph.D. program and the Ph.D. program at University College London, respectively for a year. He is passionate about economics, politics, food, and travelling. See http://www.tobiasklein.ws for his professional website.

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