Writing Matters

How important is writing in Computer Science?

When you are building models of a domain or when you are trying to do some kinds of data analysis or build a computational model, it’s often easy to think it’s just about the mathematics or just about the algorithm. In fact, what its most important is to convey to other people what is this model trying to tell you, what is the insight we are getting and also explain the methods that other people can use it. 

I’ve actually seen some cases of extremely powerful computational techniques which even after they were invented took years to catch on. And part of the reason why they took that long to catch on was the people who invented them did not do a good job of explaining to others or writing about them to really show what the power of those methods were, the circumstance in which they can be used, how they would be appropriately harnessed. And so as a result, it took years until someone else who really had the writing skills came along to take that information, digest it and then present it in a way that more people can understand it, that the real value of those techniques were sort of appreciated by the community.

Can writing about computer science project deepen your understanding of the project itself?

Think about all the cases where you get some initial reactions to something and over time your thought process revisit it, and you gather more information and you are able to better clarify your opinion or your thought about something. That in terms of clarity of thought is the same thing I believe that goes on in the writing process. There’s a process going on of trying to really revise and bringing new information to dig deeper into the issue at hand, to understand it better.

How important is it for computer scientists to communicate with people outside their discipline?

If you look at some of the issue we’re confronting right now, things like cyber security, things like intellectual property and ownership. And a lots of these topics have really emerged in the last few years in the field of computing but they’re argued by people in the fields of law, public policy, and political science. Computing is becoming a substrate for work in many other fields, and so part of that is to really make progress significantly in other fields. And in turn to be able to understand the things that are being written in other fields, in some sense, that are directed toward computer scientists. Because that kind of cross – disciplinary work which involves cross-disciplinary communication that really allow us to make progress in the boundary of these fields. So, I think it’s getting increasingly important for computer scientists to be able to talk to people outside of their field.

What should computer science student be thinking about as they write or present their work?

Really think about how you can communicate your ideas to someone else, and have real clarity of thinking. So, in the same way that we think about writing a computer program as having sufficient clarity in your thinking to be able to explain what you want to be done in detail to a computer, so that a computer could execute it which is, has to be extremely clear and extremely precise. Can you bring that same kind of clarity to the presentation you make, the communication you have with other people? Can you make your writing that clear – that the message that’s you’re trying to convey is really unambiguous and understandable by someone else? And at the end of the day, why do we write? It’s because there’re ideas that we feel are important that we want to convey to someone else.

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