Caltech Rules for Writing

Caltech Rules*

Caltech Rules represent advice to Ph.d. students and professors beginning their career. They represent “what you need to learn here that we don’t teach here,” namely, professional development.

Two parts of my Caltech rules are available on my website.

(1) This page contains my Caltech rules for writing professional papers.

(2) See also my Caltech Rules for the job market, video (7) under “recent videos and podcasts,” entitled, “Advice to PhD Students Going on the Academic Job Market.” A joint discussion with Justin Grimmer. 

To view this video, click HERE.

Caltech Rules for Writing

 DOWNLOAD Caltech Rules for Writing HERE.

Caltech Rules for writing papers help you design and structure your papers. Many papers are their own worst enemies in that they impede the reader’s ability to understand them. Most readers (such as referees) do not read carefully. When reading a poorly designed paper, readers who read quickly often miss the main point or become lost. Either way, they judge the paper as uninteresting, confused, even ridiculous, or a waste of time.

You must therefore design your paper so that a reader looking quickly at your paper is less likely to be confused and more likely to come away understanding your idea.

Some useful rules of thumb:

  • Papers should make one point and one point only. If you have many points to make on a subject, write many papers.
  • Write an abstract early on. If you cannot summarize your contribution in a short, cogent manner, you are probably confused about or unsure of the main point and will not write a clear paper.
  • After the title and abstract, the introduction is the most important part of the paper. Many readers never intend to read more of your paper. You should therefore design your introduction so that, if the reader reads no further, she will nonetheless understand the main point of your paper.
  • To serve this purpose, an introduction should have four parts:
    • State the question or problem to be solved.
    • Discuss the state of the literature: Why is another paper on this topic needed?
    • Explain your answer to the question.
    • The last paragraph should be a road-map.

For further details, read the Caltech Rules. DOWNLOAD HERE.

* I call these notes “Caltech Rules” because I learned them while a graduate student at Caltech from the remarkable group of professors: Bob Bates, John Ferejohn, Mo Fiorina, and especially Roger Noll. As they learned to articulate principles of good writing, they taught them to their graduate students. These notes represent a modest continuation of that tradition.