13+ tips to make you a better academic writer and a strategy for CHI abstracts

the writing newsletter Sep 08, 2022
Lennart motivationally smiling in front of a group of hard-working students writing their CHI abstracts and papers.

Happy September to everyone in this writing community. Welcome back to another fresh issue of The Writing Newsletter from Professor Lennart Nacke. Things are getting intense for CHI writers this month because the annual deadline is upon us. Today, abstracts are due and next week, full papers will need to be submitted. If you are submitting to CHI this year. I've got some hot tips ready for you. But first, I wanted to share three tools that I found really useful myself for the last couple of weeks of writing papers:

  1. Audemic is a really cool app that lets you listen to your papers (e.g., for me that's in the shower or the tub), supercool.
  2. Citationgecko lets you throw in a couple of seed papers on a topic and the app extracts all references in and to these seed papers and visualizes them for you, really nice way to explore citations, and finally
  3. Powerthesaurus has been essential and helping me condense those CHI abstracts for my papers.

Enough about my writing experience, here are some strong writing tips for you. Please forward this newsletter to a friend if you feel they can benefit from these tips.

How to write the perfect abstract

I have mentioned online before that there are five research questions that every scientific abstract must answer, but I haven't actually broken that down into percentages. So, out of the 150 words for the abstract of your CHI paper, this is how I would split it:

  1. Context: What is the space we are in? (15%, 22 words)
  2. Problem: Why did you do it? (15%, 22 words)
  3. Solution and methods: What did you do? How did you do it? (20%, 30-31 words)
  4. Results: What did you find out? (20%, 30-31 words)
  5. Implications: What does it all mean? What are the detailed takeaways? What does it all mean when put together? (30%, 45 words)

In my experience, many student-led papers are top-heavy in their first-draft. This means, too much space is given to describing the context and the problem, when really the reviewer is most interested in your findings and implications, so try to prioritize this in your writing when you are polishing your abstract for submission. I hope this helps you get the clarity and structure together for your abstracts today if you are submitting. And if you're not submitting, I'm sure your next paper abstract will benefit from this structure. Quick reminder to never use citations in your abstracts, that's a rookie mistake. Good luck with those abstract submissions. 

Now, on to the next week, when the paper is due. I'm hoping that you are currently just polishing and not putting fresh data into your paper. Either way, use these 13 writing strategies to polish your paper into a better version of itself.

13 Writing Strategies for a Better Research Paper

Every scientific subfield has its own rules and quirks, but I've found the following 13 rules quite useful when attempting to publish a CHI paper.

  1. Your credibility comes from using specific numbers and explaining things with specific language. So, I would argue for writing something specific like p = 0.003 not p < .01 in your paper. However, Jacob Wobbrock commented on Twitter (and he's got a good point), that in this example, the whole point is to show significance cleared an (arbitrary) threshold. Athanasios Mazarakis argued that for replication exact p-values are useful. I think a good in-between situation would be to provide exact value in additional materials or have a pre-registered study protocol on OSF. Also, don't write: "The study had various effects." It is much better to phrase this with more specificity as: "Y increased X under Z conditions." Always be specific in your writing.
  2. All killer, no filler. Cut out the fat in your writing, delete these filler phrases: Basically, Rather, Just, As a matter of fact, At all times. This is what polishing is all about, removing embellishments that your paper really does not need to tell it's story.
  3. Complexity is a crutch. Always try to explain things in simple terms. This is highly related to point 1 about being specific, but it's even better to not write with unnecessary complexity. It makes you harder to understand. That's not good. Change these: A lot of → Many, In order to → To (my personal pet peeve), Hard to do → Difficult, For the purpose of → To, On an annual basis → Yearly. Be specific—not arrogant—in your writing. Respect your reader's time and get to the point.
  4.  Do not use contractions in academic writing. Avoid things like: Don't → do not, Mustn't → must not, I'dn't've → I would not have, Y'all'd've'f'Id've → You all would have if I would have. It makes you sound informal and removes the professionalism required in an academic paper. Always search for those contractions. When writing conversational style (like what I'm doing in this email), then it's okay. In academic papers, it just looks weird and casual.
  5. Vary your sentence structure. Most sentences are SUBJECT → PREDICATE → OBJECT. You were taught to do it that way in school. It's boring. It is more interesting to make these elements dance so your writing creates music. Shake up your sentence length and construction. Here is an example inspired by the amazing Gary Provost: This is a sentence. It has four words. Here are four more. Four-word sentences work. Many together become monotonous. Listen to my writing. It is getting boring. This record sounds stuck. Its boring hum drones. Your ear demands alternation. As soon as you begin varying the sentence length, your words become unstuck. It's music. My words are singing a tune. I alternate medium and short sentence lengths. And then—when I believe the reader is rested and ready—I write a long sentence that is a little harder to follow but exciting enough for the reader to fully read until the end, to end in a crescendo, a signpost that this was important.
  6. Always use storytelling in your writing to make it more engaging. "... evidence points to the use of ‘creepy’ as a buzzword for the nebulous push-and-pull between consumer-driven convenience and dubious data practices." See: John S. Seberger, Irina Shklovski, Emily Swiatek, and Sameer Patil. 2022. Still Creepy After All These Years:The Normalization of Affective Discomfort in App Use. In Proceedings of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '22). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 159, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3502112. Illustrate your research with examples.
  7. Write parts of your paper EVERY DAY even if no one reads it. "You look ridiculous if you dance. You look ridiculous if you don’t dance. So you might as well dance." - Gertrude Stein. Pushing content forward will make editing so much easier before the deadline. I bet you wish, you would have followed this tip half a year ago. Try this for next year's deadline, you'll notice the difference.
  8. The first sentence of every paper should be short and compelling. A hook, an opener, a worldview. I love this example from last year's CHI: "From squeezing pliers to holding a key: the human hand has evolved a considerable dexterity for powerful and precise grips."  See: Martin Schmitz, Sebastian Günther, Dominik Schön, and Florian Müller. 2022. Squeezy-Feely: Investigating Lateral Thumb-Index Pinching as an Input Modality. In Proceedings of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '22). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 61, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3501981. Think of it as a wide panorama shot.
  9. Adverbs are asinine. Try to avoid them. Stephen King hates them, too. Look at how I have rephrased these adverbial structures: The effects were really interesting. → The effects were profound. The participant walked quickly forward. → They sprinted ahead. They were speaking loudly. → They were yelling. Use the proper verbs instead. Don't rely on crutches to communicate clearly.
  10. Avoid hyperboles and false interpretations. Another common mistake of junior researchers is overclaiming the results or saying something was significant when it really wasn't (hot tip: always report and focus more on effect size than significance). Examples: The results were encroaching significance. → The results were not significant. This finding has a massive impact on research. → This finding has an impact on research because ... [X]. Don't make or blow stuff up.
  11. Always read your writing out loud when editing. Alternatively, get the built-in Read out loud function of your PDF software to do it for you. It will make you catch awkward phrases and parts that make no sense twice as fast.
  12. Use the best voice for your reporting (predominantly active voice). Active voice energizes your writing and helps you quickly make your point. It's ok to say "we did" in research papers. It is also ok to refer to "we" when you are talking about the researcher and the reader together. Only if you describe an inactive object is passive ok.
  13. Convert nouns to verbs. This is super useful for your paper titles, too. Get rid of those stiff nouns. Make your research DO stuff. Examples: We collaborated on the creation process of new guidelines. → We created new guidelines together. BTW, 9 out of 10 times, you can delete the word "process" from your writing, too. You probably never really need it. It's like defrosting a smoothie. Liquid and delicious. Goodbye, stiffness.

Keep in mind: If you follow these rules, you'll probably cut your paper polishing time in half. It's always good to have these on hand when going into the final draft stage. Maybe print them out somewhere, where they are easy for you to look up.

🫶 I hope this was useful to you. If you enjoy this writing newsletter, please share it with a friend or a person who you think would benefit from such tips. As always, I appreciate your support. And remember that my writing course is always there for you if you need that extra push for your CHI paper.

See you again in one month.

Your writing professor 


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P.P.S.: Whenever you're ready, I will help you write better CHI papers here.

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