Shulab/PsychEng writing checklist

This just in – use two spaces instead of one after a period.


The obvious:  Run spell and grammar checks.  Make sure no text is marked “Do not check.”

The apparently not obvious, AKA point zero (0):

0. Do NOT try to be fancy in your writing. Your number one goal is to convey information efficiently and effectively, while causing the reader (including me) as little annoyance, frustration,…as possible.  A less-frustrated me can focus on giving you feedback on your work, being inspired by its possibilities, instead of being blocked/bogged down by your writing.


Unless you’re preparing a paper with its own template, please use the word template here:

Track Changes:

Please minimize use of track changes to

  • In early stage, only the text to which you want me to pay particular attention
  • In later stages, track every change, EXCEPT format changes
  • If you forget to turn track changes off before a major format change – accept the format changes before sending to me.

Why? A ton of track changes sometimes slows down my computer to intolerable levels, further delaying any needed action from me on your paper.

Avoiding verbosity and unnecessary complexity:

1. Do NOT have sentences longer than three (3) lines (not even in a half-page-width column). Why?

  • They take too much effort for a reader to understand.
  • They suggest you haven’t sufficiently organized your thoughts before trying to write them.

When you have a sentence that runs longer than three lines, break it down into shorter yet complete sentences.  Do not just insert periods randomly into a too-long sentence.

2. Do NOT write “It was observed that … A did B”. If use of first person is inappropriate, e.g., “We observed A to do B”, then “A was observed to do B” conveys the same idea, with fewer unneeded words.  Ditto, “it was mentioned by x and y that…” should be  “X and Y noted that…”

  • Why? Unnecessary verbosity makes the reader think you’re trying to impress people by over-complicating things, with unneeded words.
  • Avoiding the above also reduces use of the passive voice, another guideline.  Two for one!
  • Hint: search for instances of “it is/it was”, or even just “it” as a subject in your paper, and banish them!
  • Some readers/reviewers are inexplicably offended by use of the first person, deeming it too “personal” for scientific writing, so I’ve increasingly tried to avoid using first person, which is tricky when also avoiding use of passive voice.

3. Do NOT use more than 2 (3 max) prepositions per sentence: e.g.,

“There was a higher association with concepts of reduced feasibility that arose from Photo-A as compared with Photo-B.”

is much better as

“Photo A led to less-feasible concepts than Photo B.”

When you have more than 2-3 prepositions, the sentence is not only hard to read but also sounds pretentious.

Sections and subsections:

Try not to go more than a third column of text w/o a section or subsection header.  Why?  It forces you to be more organized, and not ramble on and on aimlessly.  Section headers help you check whether the flow of material makes sense, and help the reader to find information they are seeking.  Make sure the section header actually describes all the text under it.

Minor (so, easily fixed by you):

1a. Multiple-word adjectives should be hyphenated. Multiple words are not hyphenated.  Don’t-go-hyphenating-everything.

Why? It makes your writing easier to read/understand, e.g., “The hyper texting pedestrian was hit by a super fast soft ice cream truck”, vs. “The hyper-texting pedestrian was hit by a super-fast soft-ice-cream truck.”

1b: Exception (or not actually a multiple-word adjective):  Do not hyphenate adverbs that end in “ly” since they uniquely modify the adjective immediately following, e.g., moderately feasible and highly feasible

2. Try not to use the same word twice in the same sentence. (Repetition in previous sentence was done to emphasize a point.) Use a thesaurus – expand your vocabulary.

Why? It often sounds odd and careless, e.g., “The participants had the option to pick between two options.” should be “The participants chose between two options.”  See? Less pretentious and shorter too.

3. Always always always define acronyms before their first use, e.g., Need for Closure (NFC), and again if the definition was pages ago and the acronym hasn’t been used since.  Alternatively, have a nomenclature section to which readers can return easily. Why? See point 0 above.

4. Put commas between phrases, e.g., note comma in “To support product design, x and y developed a method that ….”  When in doubt, put in an extra comma – I’d rather it be clear over slightly grammatically wrong. Just, don’t, go, nuts, with, the, commas.

5. Don’t start sentences with number, e.g., “45 participants did this and that.” should be “Forty-five participants…”.  But you can have “The study’s 45 participants …”.  Reorder sentences when needed to be able to consistently use “45” over “Forty-five.”  “Small” numbers are supposed to be written out all the time, except in tables, e.g., There were only nine participants.

6.  People don’t correlate, their traits do.

7. Do not end sentence on a preposition, i.e., write “This is the trait we are seeking.” not “This is the trait we are looking for.” or even “This is the trait for which we are looking.” (unless the verb that requires the preposition has no good synonym that doesn’t.)

8.  There’s a possibility that the phrase “rule of thumb” has a negative connotation.  I’m not sure about whether the negative connotation has any accuracy, but I’ve stopped using it since it’s easy enough to avoid it.

9.  Similarly, try not to use “impact” at all (except in standard terms like impact strength), and certainly not as  a verb.  Also avoid use of empty words, e.g., “issue”. “Issue in using SCAMPER” is better expressed as “Limitation in using SCAMPER”.

Common errors (Don’t make them):

1a. “Its” is a possessive pronoun, e.g., “The dog ate its food.”  “It’s” is a contraction of “It is”, e.g., “It’s late.”

1b. Put apostrophe in right place to indicate possession, e.g., “Participants’ traits correlated…” vs. “This (one) participant’s traits…”

2.  Affect vs. effect.  Affect (in this meaning) is a verb.  Effect is a noun.

3.  Alternate vs. alternative – some disagreement on whether “alternate” should be used in the same way, but full agreement that “alternative” means other option, e.g. ,”There were no alternative methods.”   “Alternate” is more often used to mean switching between or every other, e.g., We meet on alternate Tuesdays.

4. “e.g.,” means for example. Note the use of periods and comma, see examples elsewhere.

5. “i.e.,” means that is. Note the use of periods and comma.

6.  “Less” goes with what you can’t count, e.g., less water.  “Fewer” goes with things you can count, e.g., fewer bottles of water, fewer people, etc.


Tables and graphs:

  1. Data categories: Do NOT name your categories yes/no to arbitrary questions, e.g., “Was this relevant? Yes/No.” Name your categories “relevant” and “irrelevant”.  Why? See point 0 above.
  2. Graph color code: Do NOT just go with the default colors. Pick them to be consistent and intuitive.  Try not to repeat the same (default) colors across graphs that show different categories. In general, red/orange/yellow correspond to “bad”, and green/blue correspond to good.  Why? See point 0 above.
  3. When using abbreviations, e.g., for promotion vs. prevention, leave in enough of the word so it’s clear, e.g., Promote (not Pro) for promotion-focused.
  4. Engineering papers tend to have brief titles for figures/tables (and not the extended captions that biology papers do).


  1. As with tables and graphs, try to make fit into single column in two-column text, as it is much less tricky to move such a figure as needed.  Type-setters (for journals) prefer to put them at the top or bottom of a column/page, so I try to when I can for conference papers that don’t get type set by others.
  2. Importantly, start with the realization that images that you do not generate yourself likely require permissions, unless you found them from a no-permission-required source, e.g., creative commons.
    1. As early as possible, starting getting permissions for images for which they are needed, as it often takes more time to figure out who/how to ask for permission as it does to get it.
      1. For many journal articles, this is a relatively painless process through “copyright clearance center”.
      2. Surprisingly, you need to get permissions even for figures you created for your own past publications (except your own thesis) since you would have signed over the copyright to the publisher.
    2. Start on the process early, so that if the permission-granting requirements are unpalatable (too expensive or takes too long), you have time to pursue other options, e.g., use another image, take your own photograph, re-draw your own diagram (which can then be attributed as “based on/modified from author (year) as appropriate.


  1. Regardless of what the template says, start with putting references in the reference list in alphabetical order by last name of the first author.  Cite in text as LastName1 and LastName2 (year), or LastName1 et al. (year) if more than two authors. This means you don’t need [ref. numbers] in the text as well. If we must change references to numbering sequentially as they appear in the text, we will right before final submission, but this is only enforced by a few journals.
  2. Put the period in the right place for AuthorLastName et al. It doesn’t go after the “et” – remind yourself by recalling that “et” means and in French, et it doesn’t need a period after it.
  3. Regardless of what the template says, start by formatting references as follows for your average journal paper citation:  Lastname1 F1, Lastname2 F2, …. LasnameN F2 (year) Title of paper, capitalizing only first word.  Title of journal volume/number:page1-pageN.   (That’s it, no superfluous periods, commas, &’s, ands, “volume/vol”/”Number/no/page” labels.) Example:

Jansson D, Smith S (1991) Design fixation. Design Studies 12/1:3-11.


Misc: If the first 3 writing rules below are new/unclear to you, your writing needs more help than I can offer:

1. Every sentence requires both a subject (noun) and a verb.

2. The subject must agree with the verb (this is called conjugation).  Don’t be thrown off by prepositional phrases – e.g., “One of the participants” is singular, whereas “participants” are plural.  “Of” is one of many prepositions.

3. “While” (and other similar “conditional” words, e.g., if, “As long as”) starts a phrase, not a sentence (must have second phrase that relates to the while phrase to complete sentence).  Example:  “As long as your writing is this awful” is a phrase, not a sentence.  “As long as your writing is this awful, no one will take your work seriously.”  is a sentence.

4. As nouns, use “research”, not “researches,” and “evidence” not “evidences”. Ensure subject/verb agreement after correction.

5.  Weight is generally a noun, not a verb.