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How to Write a Math Paper (Rough Draft)
J. C. LagariasFebruary 1, 2006
Abstract
This is a skeletal and opinionated description of paper writing. Takefrom it the good things, and disregard the bad things.
1 First Draft
The hardest thing about writing a paper (in my experience) is getting a ﬁrstdraft written.In particular, if there are proofs, the hard part means getting some draft of a proof written down on paper, not necessarily with every detail included.It is not necessary to get a polished presentation on the ﬁrst draft.After a ﬁrst draft is written, one can edit and re-edit the paper to get it ina better form. Editing tools now permit signiﬁcant rearrangement/reorderingof contents. (Latex will keep track of renumbering everything, section numbers,theorem numbers, page numbers.)Many of the principles of good writing in general apply to math paper writ-ing. I wish I knew what they all were. However the next section gives the pointmore important for math papers than others; good organization.
2 Organization
A paper should tell a story, if possible. This makes the paper easier to follow.This is true also of “experimental” papers, where the paper may describe the journey.An example of a well-organized expository paper, that tells a story, is oneby Andrew Granville and Greg Martin [1].I think a paper lives or dies in its organization. If the organization is good,revision of the paper lies locally in the details. (This is a “great truth”. The1

diﬀerence between a “truth” and a “great truth” is that a “great truth” is onewhose opposite is also a “great truth.”)The paper should have pointers explaining where the paper is going. Forexample, it is hard to read a proof that proceeds line by line, without a cluewhere the author is going. (Unfortuately a large number of math papers arewritten in this fashion.) I am not sure how to explain this further, except byexample.The idea is that the logical ﬂow of the paper should carry the reader along.As a question is raised in their mind, the paper is ready to answer it, or ac-knowledge it as an unanswered question.However math papers are (usually) not detective novels, Where the paperis going should be explained in the introduction (at the end). The main resultsusually should be stated near the beginning, possibly in a section 2 titled mainresults, if they are too complicated or techical for easy statement in the intro-duction.One viewpoint is, that if the entire paper were destroyed except for the intro-duction, it should still be possible to have a good idea what the paper was about.For example, the Archimedes Palimpsest, (re?)discovered in 1908, containsversions of “The Method of Mechanical Theorems”, “On Floating Bodies” anda fragment of “The Stomachion”. What is “The Stomachion” about? No oneis quite sure, as the fragment cuts oﬀ at this point.
Remark
There is a virtually inexhaustible supply of badly written math pa-pers. However if a paper has a really tremendous result, it can transcend thewriting style of the author.
3 Introduction
The introduction sets the stage for the paper.(1) It states the problem, the history of work on this problem and relatedproblems.(2) It gives pointers to relevant prior work [4]. and sometimes peripherallyrelated prior work [2], [3].(3) It states the main results, either formally as a theorem or informally,with a pointer to where the main result appears.2

(4) It states open questions. These can be stated as questions, if one hasno idea of the outcome and wishes to play it safe, or conjectures if one is veryconﬁdent of the outcome.
Question.
How long would it take 50000 monkeys, typing on typewriters atthe rate of one character per second, for one of them to reproduce in order thecomplete works of Shakespeare?For results one has accumulated signiﬁcant evidence in favor, one can for-mulate a “guess.”
Conjecture.
(“Ramanujan”)
The Riemann zeta function has too many ze-ros.
[The refers to G.H. Hardy’s remark that much of Ramanujan’s work on primenumbers would have been completely correct if the Riemann zeta function hadno complex zeros].[Good conjectures can enhance one’s reputation. Bad conjectures, meaningones that are proved false, cast a black mark. Actually I prefer to believe theshade of the mark varies-as some of my own conjectures have been disproved.]
Remarks.
(1) Most of the general bibliographic citations are in the introduc-tion. In the body of the paper, refences will often be in proofs, to shorten work.(2) The reliability of the author(s) can sometimes be assessed with how care-fully, extensively and well chosen the bibliography is. A narrow bibliography,particularly restricted to that of the author, is suspicious. (Not always. BenoitMandlebrot, a great applied mathematician/physicist is fond of citing mostlyhis own work.)
4 How Many Sections?
You can subdivide your paper into several sections. This is done with the aimof clarity of organization. If you are exploring several diﬀerent questions, youcan have one section for each topic.You might have a separate section for Computational Issues. This mightdescribe how to write an eﬃcient program to compute something. (Computercode might be included in an Appendix.)There can be a concluding section on further directions of work, open prob-lems remaining.3
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