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How To Write A Dissertation - Page 2

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Terms And Phrases To Avoid:

  • adverbs
      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 qualitative judgements.
  • ``true'', ``pure'',
      In the sense of ``good'' (it is judgemental).
  • ``perfect''
      Nothing is.
  • ``an ideal solution''
      You're judging again.
  • ``today'', ``modern times''
      Today is tomorrow's yesterday.
  • ``soon''
      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''
      usually vague
  • ``based on'', ``X-based'', ``as the basis of''
      careful; can be vague
  • ``different''
      Does not mean ``various''; different than what?
  • ``in light of''
      colloquial
  • ``lots of''
      vague & colloquial
  • ``kind of''
      vague & colloquial
  • ``type of''
      vague & colloquial
  • ``something like''
      vague & colloquial
  • ``just about''
      vague & colloquial
  • ``number of''
      vague; do you mean ``some'', ``many'', or ``most''? A quantative statement is preferable.
  • ``due to''
      colloquial
  • ``probably''
      only if you know the statistical probability (if you do, state it quantatively
  • ``obviously, clearly''
      be careful: obvious/clear to everyone?
  • ``simple''
      Can have a negative connotation, as in ``simpleton''
  • ``along with''
      Just use ``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''
      Absolutely?
  • ``should''
      Who says so?
  • ``proof'', ``prove''
      Would a mathematician agree that it's a proof?
  • ``show''
      Used in the sense of ``prove''. To ``show'' something, you need to provide a formal proof.
  • ``can/may''
      Your mother probably told you the difference.

Voice:

Use active constructions. For example, say 'the operating system starts the device' instead of `the device is started by the operating system.'

Tense:

Write in the present tense. For example, say ``The system writes a page to the disk and then uses the frame...'' instead of ``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 packets.''

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 the sentence ``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 evidence that...''.

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