Throughout my PhD, I collected writing advice from all my different mentors. Because this list could be useful not only to me, I am sharing this advice as a writing guide here.
I mainly write HCI systems or human-behavior style papers. But there are many more kinds of papers in HCI. So this writing guide may or may not apply to your writing. I also just describe my own style here, and there are many ways to write a great HCI paper.
Whenever you write, the most important is to have the right mindset. Don’t write to show off how smart you are. This could be expressed by either introducing your work with unnecessary jargon and jumping to the solution without stating the problem. Instead, make your findings sound as simple and easy to understand as possible. Start by elaborating the problem. Because that implies that the reader actually understands what you want to say. Some papers use unnecessary jargon, try to avoid that. Instead, use simple language. Secondly, I find myself often inclined to include in my writing all the things I tried that failed, because I feel the need to show how hard it was to get to the results. That’s essentially the same thing as trying to sound smart because the reader will learn how hard the task is. But as I wrote before, the writing should sound as simple as possible, so write it as if it was as obvious as possible to get to your proposed solution.
“if you try to sound smart, you may succeed but get forgotten, but people will remember and respect those who enlighten them”
- How is the domain important to society? (that means, why should the reader care?). This can be a separate paragraph or a single sentence, depending on what you want to emphasize. For example, if you introduce a novel problem in the healthcare domain to the HCI community, more elaboration on the problem may be needed, as compared to a well-established problem, for example about typing speed.
- What is the problem in this domain, and why is it a problem. I recommend writing this paragraph before anything else since it is probably the most important of HCI papers.
- What is your solution, that means how do you tackle the problem. This should describe the high-level attributes of your research contribution.
- Summarize your contributions. This should describe the low-level attributes of your research contribution, I recommend using bullet points. Some papers list here ‘conducted a user study’ as a contribution. Unless you conducted a novel kind of user study, I don’t think merely the act of conducting a user study is a contribution.
- Study/experiments you did. Ideally, this shows what you actually found. Here you can brag about the user study you conducted. Be concrete, show numbers.
“After the intro, you’re done, the rest is just a piece of cake”
Keep it short and concise. Most of my projects had two or three lines of research that were strongly related to my paper. I commonly summarize them in one paragraph each. A good related work paragraph structure is: (1) give a high level one sentence synthesis, (2) then pick two or three related works and describe their findings more in-depth, (3) then describe how your works differ from previous work and what it adds.
A very important section in my opinion, because it connects the problem you identified with your findings.
- System contribution: What informed your system design? A theoretical framework? A formative study such as contextual inquiry, interviews, observational study/analyses? This paragraph should boil down the findings of your formative work to simple, low-level pragmatics (actionable items that inform your design).
- Human-behavior contribution: What motivated your study? This is mostly based on a theoretical framework from psychological research. This should ideally result in hypotheses. I prefer to explicitly write my hypotheses here.
If you have a system contribution, this is where you describe your system, including all its features. Highlight for every feature its connection to your formative work. If you don’t have a connection, it’s probably not relevant for your research.
- The paragraphs in this section are usually always structured the same. As a reader, I just want to skim over them and look for specific numbers or items such as the measures.
- Procedures: What task did you give to users, what was the setup.
- Participants: Who were the participants, how many, what were general demographics? Be clear about whether you excluded any participants and how you handled their data.
- Measures: What questionnaires, tools, other measures did you use. Describe every single one of them. The best papers don’t make up measures but have references for each of them.
- Data analysis: What analyses did you run, what were the factors.
- Start by providing the main statistics about the data you collected, such as average session time, etc. I enjoy writing this paragraph first, because it is usually easy to write, so the scary empty page is gone quickly :-)
- Structure your results by your findings. This links back to the introduction, what conclusions did you write in the last paragraph of the introduction? Every sentence in there ideally links to one paragraph/section of the results. Report your statistical analyses here, your qualitative results, or whatever type of results you have.
- Start by summarizing your results in one paragraph. This may feel repetitive for you as the author, but helps the reader who only reads this last part of the paper to quickly understand your paper
- Describe the insights you got from the results, and describe how they link back to the problem you describe in the second paragraph introduction
- Describe future work that may be conducted based on your work
A comment on getting effective feedback. I recommend writing a full paper draft before asking for anyone's feedback. When you write the paper, you probably have everything in your head. Write that down first, exhaust your knowledge in the writing. Once you did that, its a good moment to ask for feedback. If you don’t have anyone for feedback, you can try giving yourself feedback. What I mean by that is read through the reviewer's guide (http://chi2019.acm.org/guide-to-reviewing-papers/), and read through your paper with a reviewers mindset (don’t think about how you can improve it, just criticize it).