Tips by benbenzhou


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Style Book Get a book on writing style, read over it and then keep it handy for reference.
The book by Strunk and White is good. I also have a book from the government printing
office that has a lot of good details about technical writing.

Read good writing The best way to improve your writing skills is to practice writing,
but reading material that has been written well is also helpful. You absorb the style you
read, at least a little bit. The subject is unimportant, so you can read whatever you want,
but you better pick something where the writing is good—you want to avoid absorbing a
style that is lousy.

Format There are many correct ways to format the headings and references in a
document. Adopt the formatting from an important hydro journal, such as WRR or
Ground Water, for your paper. The one exception is that your paper should be have only
one column and it should use double, or 1.5 line spacing—WRR uses two columns and is
single spaced.

Develop a template in Word that implements the formatting that you want to use in your

Embed figures in the text, along with a caption. You can include large figures on pages
that are separate from text if you want. It looks better and is fairly easy to embed figures
in the text. Manuscripts that you submit to a journal will have the figures together in the
back, but this is inconvenient for the reader, so you should be your figures in the ext
slightly after the first place they are cited.

Organization Manuscripts should be tightly organized with general statements leading to
specific details. The first sentence is the most important. Notice how all good books
have interesting first sentences. This is done so the reader wants to continue. Make the
first sentence an overview of the paper that points out something interesting or relevant to
the entire paper. The first sentence under each heading and the topic sentence in each
paragraph are also important introductions to what is to follow. This means, of course,
that you must organize sections and paragraphs so they are faithful to the introductory

Sections The paper should be organized into sections with headings that serve as landmarks so
the reader can keep their bearings. Learn how to use Style sheets in WORD to make outlines and
maintain a consistent structure to your headings. Avoid having one section heading under
another heading. In this case, you should have text under the first heading to explain what is
contained in the following section. If a section contains subsections, defined by subheadings,
then you should have at least two subheadings in that section. If you only have one subheading in
a section then you should either elevate the subheading to the same level as the section (make a
new section) or delete the subheading.

Abstract The Abstract should be a summary of the paper, not an advertisement for it. The
Abstract should include the important points of the paper—what is the problem, how was the
work done, what are the important finding, etc--so if the reader only gets through the Abstract
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they will have read something of value. Some people write abstracts that describe what can be
found in the full paper, without actually giving any details. This wastes the reader’s time and
should be avoided.

Sentence structure Use a sentence structure that is clear. Most sentences should have this
simple structure: subject-verb-object. Add a clause or two at the end if you want. Avoid starting
sentences with clauses that are set off with a comma from the SVO part of the sentence.
Particularly avoid this type of sentence as a topic sentence in a paragraph. Avoid: To determine
the drawdown in the aquifer at any time, the method of images is used. This is cleaner: The
method of images is used to determine the drawdown in the aquifer at any time. Save the
sentences with exotic structures for your next novel.

Observe and interpret Separate observations or descriptions from interpretations. Mixing
descriptions and interpretations in the same sentence or paragraph will compromise the integrity
of both. You can make the separation at the scale of the entire document, with one section
containing descriptions and another containing interpretations. In some cases you will want to
include interpretations that are in the same section. This can be OK, but at least keep description
and interpretation in separate paragraphs.

Do not describe it this way. Avoid describing things using negative terms. Change vocabulary
so that you say what something is, and avoid describing it by saying what it is not. Unclear: The
hydrograph is not greatly affected by ET. Better: ET has a negligible effect on the hydrograph.
The first sentence only implies what you want to say, but “not greatly” avoids really saying what
you mean, which is “negligible”.

Judgement: Avoid describing something using judgemental terms: The drilling technique
produced a good well. What does good really mean here? The flow in the stream was very low.
What is the difference between low and very low in this case? It is a judgement call. It is OK to
use “very” when it has been defined. “very-fine grained sand” is clearly different than “fine-
grained sand” when using a grain size scale that defines these sizes.

Equations. Equations should be centered by themselves on a line. Equations should be
numbered consecutively, with the number along the right margin. Write equations using the
equation editor in WORD. Refer to equations in the text like this “according to eq(3)”, or
sometimes you can omit the “eq”, like this “according to (3). When an equation appears in the
text you should treat it as if it was part of the sentence, like this: “Al Einstein reports that energy

                                                E  mc 2                                               (1)

where m is mass, and c is the speed of light.” Be sure to define variables the first time they
appear in an equation, but avoid repeating the definition later in the text. You may want to
include a glossary of variables at the back of the manuscript.

Hyphenation: When one adjective modifies another adjective, use a hyphen between them.
Coarse-grained sediment; a 50-ft deep well. When one adverb modifies another adverb a hyphen
is unnecessary (adverbs commonly end in “ly”): poorly sorted sand. Look up hyphenation in
your style book.
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Whereas and while: Use “while” when describing or comparing things that are
contemporaneous, otherwise use “whereas.” Whereas is used instead of while in most

Mathematical variables Use italics in the text when mathematical variables are letters. This is
done because the variable means something much different than a simple letter. Not OK: A test
was conducted to determine a. OK: A test was conducted to determine a.

Citations. You will often need to include the work of others in your writing, and you
should be sure to accurately cite the previous work in both your text and figure captions.
Most applications are best served by maintaining a focus on the technical issue, and
including the citation after the statement that needs support. This is OK in a
hydrogeology paper: “Drawdown during a well test is affected by recharge [Jones,
1985].” This diverts attentions away from the hydrogeology: “In the paper published by
Jones [1985], he clearly states in no uncertain terms that, of course, drawdown during a
well test is affected by recharge.” Only do this sort of thing if you really need to divert
attention away from the technical issue. This approach could call attention to the paper
without shifting technical focus: “Drawdown during a well test is affected by recharge,
according to Jones [1985].”

List of References. Your paper should contain a list of all the references you cite, and all the
papers in the list of references should be cited in the paper. There are many styles for composing
a list of references, and all the references should be listed in the same style. Use the style in
Water Resources Research.

EndNote is a software program designed to store and manage references. I recommend that you
put your references in an EndNote database. This will simplify making a List of References for
your paper, and it will simplify preparing similar lists in the future.

Quotation You should always try to understand the concepts described in a paper and then
rephrase the concept in your own words while citing the original work. This allows you to
include and acknowledge existing knowledge in your work. In rare cases, you may want to quote
another paper. Do this only when the words you are quoting are particularly appropriate or

Literature review Sometimes your writing will be based solely on the work of others,
such as when you write a review of previous work for your thesis or for a term paper.
The most interesting way to do this is to maintain your focus on the technical topic and
cite the previous work to support your statements. Avoid making the published papers
the subject of the review. Never review previous work by summarizing one paper after
the next, like a catalog, because this is boring for the reader and may fail to point out the
important technical aspects.

Header Use a header to show the title, author, date, page number. Right justify, reduce
font size.

Figures and text Your text should stand alone, independently from Figures. Describe the
important points in the text and cite figures to support the text. Avoid referring to a figure as the
sole approach to making your point. You have no control over what the reader may interpret
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from a figure, so you must be certain to describe the important information in the text. Only
rarely should you directly describe a figure in the text. Avoid this: “Figure 7 shows cross-beds
that are 10m high in the Navajo sandstone.” This is better: “Cross-beds as high as 10m are
common in the Navajo sandstone (Fig. 7). The first statement reads like a caption and gives info
about the Figure, the second one gives information about the Navajo sandstone, which is where
you want to keep the focus.

Captions Always include captions describing the contents of a figure or table. Keep in mind that
the caption should describe the contents, rather than the figure itself. For example, the caption for
a photograph of cross-beds exposed in an outcrop of the Navajo sandstone might be “Cross-beds
in the Navajo sandstone near Shiprock, New Mexico. Avoid this caption “Photograph of cross-
beds…” because it should be obvious that it is a photograph. The same holds for “Geology of the
Inner Piedmont” rather than “Map of the geology of the Inner Piedmont”. Cite sources for the
figures in the caption.

Plots Plots should be easily to read and graphically pleasing. You should be able to
easily read everything on the plot when it is several feet away.

        Size the axes of graphs to eliminate as much white space as possible. Do this so that the
data cover as much of plot as possible—white space on a graph is wasted space.

         Use heavier lines, larger fonts, and larger symbols than typical defaults in EXCEL. Use 5
to 9 labeled major tics per axis. Always include minor tics. It is best to use a matching set of tics
on both ends, or the top and bottom of a graph. This feature is not supported by EXCEL, but it is
supported by graphing packages like SIGMAPLOT. Tics on both sides of the graph allow
someone to determine the values of the points on the graph with enough accuracy to reliably
reproduce the graph if needed. For manuscripts: Make the graphs clear in black and white—
avoid relying on colors to distinguish lines. Use a white background—avoid the gray default.
OK to shade symbols or bar graphs. For slides: Make lines thicker, fonts bigger, and symbols
bigger than in manuscript. OK to use colors. In all cases, be sure to make the information on the
graph as easy to understand as possible—the easier it is for your audience to understand, the more
convincing the graph will be.
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       Here is a graph formatted using defaults in EXCEL. It shows discrete data
represented as points and a continuous function represented as a line. Try to pick the
format of the plot (points, line, line with points) so it represents the type of data you are
displaying, as this graph does.

        This graph looks awful. It is shown fairly large because the lines are thin and the
fonts are small enough so that they are difficult to read when the graph is reduced much.
The grey background cuts the contrast with the lines and reduces readability.



         0.5                                                                        Series1
                                                                                    Poly. (Series1)
               0                    5                      10                     15


       Here are some ways this graph can be improved.

      Only use a white background, get rid of the grey.

      Reduce the range of the axes so you get rid of the wasted space.

      Thicken the axes, enlarge the fonts. Difficult to see

      Move the x-axis to the bottom

      Remove the border. This is clutter

      Increase the size of the symbols. Fill the inside of the symbols with white to avoid big, black
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      Label the axes with readable font. Be sure to include units

      I would remove the grid lines, although they could stay

      Legend needs better definition, or remove it and put that info in the caption.

      Include minor tics. Point the tics inward to give a sharp outer border. You may need to point
       tics outward when data are close to the axis and would interfere with the tics.

      Reduce the size. This amount of information could comfortably be displayed in half this

        The graph shown below is as good as I can do in EXCEL. I put the graph in a
text box in WORD. This allows the graph to be moved around, and it allows a caption to
be attached. It is about a half page wide, so a column of text can be wrapped around it.
Do this by clicking on the text box and going to Layout. The graph below could still be
improved, in my opinion, by doing these things:

       Concentration (mg/L)

                                                                      Thicken line defining
                                                                     Thicken regression line
                                                                     Add tics on the top and
                              -0.5                                    right—it is much easier
                                                                      to determine correct
                               -1                                     numerical values for data
                                     3   5     7    9   11            points when the scale is
                                                                      included on both sides of
                                             t (days)                 the graph.

                                                                     Thicken axes a little.

      Enlarge tics a little. The major tics are thicker than the minor ones.

      x-axis range is set so first and last symbol are included in the graph, but the
       numbering starts at an integer.

          I noticed that there are slight differences in fonts sizes between the upper and
   lower graphs, but they are unintentional.
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                                                                                    This graph was made using the
                                                                             software program SigmaPlot. The
                                                                             formatting is better than the one
    Concentration (mg/L)

                              0.5                                                    This graph is embedded in the
                                                                             text, and I encourage you to do this for
                              0.0                                            your paper. The best way to do this is
                                                                             to create a table with one column and
                           -0.5                                              two rows. Put the graphics in one row
                                                                             and the caption in the lower row, and
                           -1.0                                              then go to Table Properties and select
                                        4          6           8   10   12
                                                                             “Around” to wrap the text.
                                                        t (days)
                                                                                     One way to test readability is
Figure 1. Concentration as a function of time                                to reduce the size of the figure. Often
       during the field experiment (triangles),                              figures are published at much smaller
       and third-order polynomial fit (line).                                sizes than originally drafted. Notice
                                                                             how the ability to read the revised
                                                                             figure and the original one from Excel
                                                                             differ markedly after they have been


Concentration (mg/L)

                       1.0                                                   0.5

                       0.5                                                     0
                                                                                                                   Poly. (Series1)
                                                                                    0   2   4   6   8   10   12   14

                       0.0                                                   -0.5

                       -0.5                                                   -1

                                4   6       8      10     12
                                        t (days)

                                                                             The line is visible, but not much else.
This figure still works at this size, although the
tics could be a bit larger
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       WORD has many capabilities that facilitate preparing a manuscript beyond
functioning as a correcting typewriter. You should know how to use these capabilities.
Style sheets or templates

        You attach a style sheet or a template when you first open a document. The style
sheet has categories for the font, paragraph, and tab settings for different parts of the
document. You can see what the style sheet does by highlighting a piece of text and
making a selection from the style box on the formatting toolbar (make sure you are
viewing this the Formatting toolbar). When you open the style box you should see the
current selection of available styles. Select one of these styles and notice how the
formatting changes. The formatting is associated with the style you selected.

        You can modify the styles in the style sheet by going to Format-Style, then select
the style you want and click Modify. Make changes in the formatting the same way you
would change the formatting of an individual selection. The difference is that this style is
recorded in the style sheet so you use it again. This will allow you to use a consistent
style for equivalent parts of the manuscript.

        The style sheet is particularly helpful for section headings. You don’t need to
remember the style that you use for each level of heading because it is recorded in the
style sheet. Moreover, if you change the formatting of a particular style name in the style
sheet, then the formatting of all the elements in the document that are designated with
that name will change. This is particularly helpful if you want to change the formatting
of a document to meet particular criteria that differ from the original formatting that you
used at the time of writing.
Outline View

        Using the style sheet to identify the style of section headings will identify the
headings to WORD. You need to make sure that the correct Outline Level (in the
Paragraph Formatting Box) is associated with the section heading style. This gives you
two helpful capabilities. You can display the document in Outline View. This allows
you to collapse the document and see whatever level of sections heading you want. You
can move headings around in outline view and the text and subheadings will move along
with it. This allows you to easily check and modify the structure of a document. Also,
WORD will automatically make a table of contents using sections that are designated at
different levels—it will identify the sections and determine the pages where they occur
and put this info in a table. This can save a lot of time with a big document, like a thesis.
WORD can also make tables of figures.

       Go to View-Toolbars and make sure you are viewing the drawing toolbar. The
drawing capabilities in WORD are good enough to make nice, fairly simple drawings, or
to modify drawings that are imported. Learn how to draw using the different lines,
change line thickness and make arrows, insert rectangles or ellipses, fill polygons, move
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to front or back, rotate and flip,insert text. Set Autoshape Defaults allows you to set the
default styles used by the drawing functions

        The equation editor in WORD can do a nice job of formatting most of the
equations you will need to type. To insert an equation and open the equation editor, click
Insert-Object and select Microsoft Equation. Some versions of WORD will have a button
on the toolbar to insert an equation. It looks like  , which I typed with the equation
editor. Experiment with the capabilities in the equation editor.

       Try writing this equation.

                                                       
                                                       
                               y  y   i   2 i 2 d                                  (1)
                                       i 1       g
                                            r2  s       

         Equations should be centered on the page and numbered consecutively. Equation
numbers are right justified and contained in parentheses. Do the centering and right
justification with tabs. Make a style in the template to format equations.

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