How To Write A Dissertation - Page 2
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Terms And Phrases To Avoid:
Mostly, they are very often overly used. Use
strong words instead. For example, one could
say, ``Writers abuse adverbs.''
- jokes or puns
They have no place in a formal document.
- ``bad'', ``good'', ``nice'', ``terrible'', ``stupid''
A scientific dissertation does not make moral
judgements. Use ``incorrect/correct'' to refer
to factual correctness or errors. Use precise
words or phrases to assess quality (e.g.,
``method A requires less computation than
method B''). In general, one should avoid all
- ``true'', ``pure'',
In the sense of ``good'' (it is judgemental).
- ``an ideal solution''
- ``today'', ``modern times''
Today is tomorrow's yesterday.
How soon? Later tonight? Next decade?
- ``we were surprised to learn...''
Even if you were, so what?
- ``seems'', ``seemingly'',
It doesn't matter how something appears;
- ``would seem to show''
all that matters are the facts.
- ``in terms of''
- ``based on'', ``X-based'', ``as the basis of''
Does not mean ``various''; different than what?
- ``in light of''
- ``lots of''
- ``kind of''
- ``type of''
- ``something like''
- ``just about''
- ``number of''
vague; do you mean ``some'', ``many'', or ``most''? A quantative statement
- ``due to''
only if you know the statistical probability (if you do, state it
- ``obviously, clearly''
be careful: obvious/clear to everyone?
Can have a negative connotation, as in ``simpleton''
- ``along with''
- ``actually, really''
define terms precisely to eliminate the need to clarify
- ``the fact that''
makes it a meta-sentence; rephrase
- ``this'', ``that''
As in ``This causes concern.'' Reason: ``this''
can refer to the subject of the previous
sentence, the entire previous sentence, the
entire previous paragraph, the entire previous
section, etc. More important, it can be
interpreted in the concrete sense or in the
meta-sense. For example, in: ``X does Y. This means ...''
the reader can assume ``this'' refers to Y or
to the fact that X does it. Even when
restricted (e.g., ``this computation...''), the
phrase is weak and often ambiguous.
- ``You will read about...''
The second person has no place in a formal dissertation.
- ``I will describe...''
The first person has no place in a formal
dissertation. If self-reference is essential,
phrase it as ``Section 10 describes...''
- ``we'' as in ``we see that''
A trap to avoid. Reason: almost any sentence
can be written to begin with ``we'' because
``we'' can refer to: the reader and author, the
author and advisor, the author and research
team, experimental computer scientists, the
entire computer science community, the science
community, or some other unspecified group.
- ``Hopefully, the program...''
Computer programs don't hope, not unless they
implement AI systems. By the way, if you are
writing an AI thesis, talk to someone else:
AI people have their own system of rules.
- ``...a famous researcher...''
It doesn't matter who said it or who did it.
In fact, such statements prejudice the reader.
- Be Careful When Using ``few, most, all, any, every''.
A dissertation is precise. If a sentence
says ``Most computer systems contain X'', you
must be able to defend it. Are you sure you
really know the facts? How many computers
were built and sold yesterday?
- ``must'', ``always''
- ``proof'', ``prove''
Would a mathematician agree that it's a proof?
Used in the sense of ``prove''. To ``show'' something,
you need to provide a formal proof.
Your mother probably told you the difference.
Use active constructions. For example, say 'the operating system starts
the device' instead of `the device is started by the operating system.'
Write in the present tense. For example, say
``The system writes a page to the disk and then uses the frame...''
``The system will use the frame after it wrote the page to disk...''
Define Negation Early:
Example: say ``no data block waits on the output queue'' instead of
``a data block awaiting output is not on the queue.''
Grammar And Logic:
Be careful that the subject of each sentence really does what the verb
says it does. Saying
``Programs must make procedure calls using the X instruction''
is not the same as saying
``Programs must use the X instruction when they call a procedure.''
In fact, the first is patently false! Another example:
``RPC requires programs to transmit large packets''
is not the same as
``RPC requires a mechanism that allows programs to transmit large
All computer scientists should know the rules of logic. Unfortunately
the rules are more difficult to follow when the language of discourse is English instead of mathematical symbols. For example, the sentence
``There is a compiler that translates the N languages by...''
means a single compiler exists that handles all the languages, while
``For each of the N languages, there is a compiler that translates...'' means that there may be 1 compiler, 2 compilers, or N compilers. When
written using mathematical symbols, the difference are obvious because
``for all'' and ``there exists'' are reversed.
Focus On Results And Not The People/Circumstances In Which They Were Obtained:
``After working eight hours in the lab that night, we realized...''
has no place in the dissertation. It doesn't matter when you realized it
or how long you worked to obtain the answer. Another example:
``Jim and I arrived at the numbers shown in Table 3 by measuring...''
Put an acknowledgement to Jim in the dissertation, but do not include
names (even your own) in the main body.
You may be tempted to document a long series of experiments that
produced nothing or a coincidence that resulted in success. Avoid
it completely. In particular, do not document seemingly mystical
influences (e.g., ``if that cat had not crawled through the hole in the
floor, we might not have discovered the power supply error indicator
on the network bridge''). Never attribute such events to mystical
causes or imply that strange forces may have affected your results.
Summary: stick to the plain facts. Describe the results without
dwelling on your reactions or events that helped you achieve them.
Avoid Self-Assessment (both praise and criticism):
Both of the following examples are incorrect:
``The method outlined in Section 2 represents a major breakthrough
in the design of distributed systems because...''
``Although the technique in the next section is not earthshaking,...''
References To Extant Work:
One always cites papers, not authors. Thus, one uses a singular verb
to refer to a paper even though it has multiple authors. For example
``Johnson and Smith [J&S90] reports that...''
Avoid the phrase ``the authors claim that X''. The use of ``claim'' casts
doubt on ``X'' because it references the authors' thoughts instead of the
facts. If you agree ``X'' is correct, simply state ``X'' followed by a
reference. If one absolutely must reference a paper instead of a result,
say ``the paper states that...'' or ``Johnson and Smith [J&S 90] presents
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