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A summary/revision of the essay "How to Write Mathematics" by Paul Halmos.

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Can Karakus

This essay is aimed to be a guide to write mathematics in a clear, instructive and

understandable way. It is intended for those having trouble with expressing their mathematical

ideas in a clear and effective way; as well as those who are talented in this regard, since like

most arts that require gift, people are not born with the full knowledge of how to best

communicate ideas, but rather learn it from sources such as this essay.

In order to write mathematics, one needs to have a clear idea to communicate and a well-

defined audience that is interested in this idea. Communicating this idea in a good way

requires a lot of effort: One needs to organize the content of what needs to be said, arrange

them in a logical order, write and re-write it several times, while being cautious about

technical details such as notation, diction, punctuation and grammar.

Perhaps the most fundamental principle in writing mathematics, or writing any article in

general, is that one needs a clear, unambiguous and well-defined idea to communicate. An

abundance of ideas, or lack of one are both bad writing examples.

Trying to say too many things at the same time usually results in none of them being

completely understood. A good example is the calculus books, which is nothing more than a

mixture of bits and pieces of other mathematical fields, such as analytic geometry, topology,

real analysis, elementary measure theory and differential geometry. Each of these are

dedicated fields, and it is an impossible task to write a book on all of them at the same time.

On the other extreme, sometimes a long article may contain no ideas at all; they consist of

sentences following each other, but there is no concrete idea that convey. Such articles are

very hard to read, but more importantly, having nothing to say defeats the purpose of writing

in the first place.

Another important principle is to determine the audience. The intended audience could be

other specialists working in your field, undergraduate students, a friend, non-technical people,

or even yourself. It is vitally important to tailor the writing style according for the audience.

The level of detail, amount of background information to provide, level of informality,

amount of explanation and motivation to include depends on the target audience. It is

acceptable to skip the background information if the article is intended for specialists in that

field, but people outside the particular field require the background information to understand

the material. On the other hand, an educational writing intended for students should contain

sufficient motivation and explanation of the material, which might be boring and distractive

for experts.

The audience should be kept in mind at all times while writing. One should think of which

parts of the argument might be unclear to the reader, and what sentences might mislead them.

It is often helpful to think of a specific person from the intended audience while writing, in

order to have an idea of how the reader would interpret your writing.

Organization is crucial for any mathematical writing. In order to organize the material, one

needs to prepare an outline. Even determining a subject to write on is an outline; deciding to

write a book on algebraic geometry is a very coarse outline, though usually one needs a much

more detailed one; a tree of concepts to be presented, arranged in logical order. Organization

gives the reader an idea of what to expect, and demonstrates how the components of the

article or book are related. An ideal organization follows a logical order, and allows the reader

to easily follow the arguments presented. In an ideally organized piece of mathematical work,

every piece is where it needs to be; removing one piece, or exchanging the order causes the

arguments to break apart.

In the process of writing, it is often very helpful to follow a spiral structure. What this means

is that once one section is finished, one should revisit the earlier sections to revise them, or

even re-write them from scratch if necessary, and repeat this after every section ends. This

technique greatly helps with the organization and structure, since it is difficult to predict

which notions, examples or theorems should be introduced in one section, in order to help

presenting the ideas of the next one. Once the next section is written, it is clearer what should

and what should not be included in the previous sections in order them to properly serve as a

basis for the following content. At the end of every section, the previous sections should be

revised from the point of view of the new section. It sometimes helps to give hints and include

some motivation regarding what is coming next, which serves as a preparation for the next

section, and allows for a smoother transition between sections. The process of repetitive re-

writing of sections may require effort, but it is worth it. Good math writing requires writing,

re-writing, and re-rewriting until a satisfactory result is obtained.

There must be a clear structure and organization on the paragraph and sentence level as well.

Statements irrelevant to the context must be avoided. The reader must be able to clearly

follow what is going on, what is being proven, and what to expect next. It is not a good idea to

follow a line of arguments, and state what is being proved in the end of the proof. The

theorem should clearly be stated before the proof, so that the reader knows what is being

proved. It might be a good idea to include some motivation for proving the theorem in

question in advance, which might allow the reader to better follow the arguments.

One of the important things to be careful about is mathematical symbols and notation. The

notation decisions should be made before writing. It is helpful to make a table of all the

notation that will be used, and stick with it throughout the writing. Once you start writing,

coming up with new notation on-the-spot almost always results in bad notation, impair

readability and sometimes confuse the reader. One should use alphabetical harmony and be

consistent in the notation. It is inconsistent and confusing to write, for instance, ax+y, or

p(x)=px

2

+r. Although it is customary in mathematics, freezing notation should also be

avoided. Freezing a certain notation prevents usage of any other kind of notation to denote a

certain variable, and prohibits the usage of that notation in another context, and limits the

options of the writer. For instance, n is almost always used for positive integer, or is almost

always used for an arbitrarily small positive real number, and usage of these variables in other

contexts would raise some eyebrows and distract the reader.

In order to enhance readability, one should try to use words instead of redundant symbols and

unnecessary notation as much as possible. For instance, it is much easier to read and

understand Every real continuous function on a compact space is bounded than For K

compact, for f C(K), |f|<. Another example of using redundant notation could be the

statement Every real continuous function f on a compact space is bounded, where the

symbol f contributes nothing to the sentence.

The next important point is language and grammar. Needless to say, the math writer must use

correct grammar, correct vocabulary and correct punctuation. This often requires knowledge

of nuances between similar words, such as contains and includes. One should use the

technical terms with care, to avoid confusion. When possible, coining new terms should also

be avoided, and the idea should preferably be expressed in terms of already existing notions,

since it is fair to assume that the reader is already familiar with them. In math writing, as with

all other kinds of writing, language is crucial, and using bad language can create ambiguity, or

even worse, communicate the wrong idea.

Repetition and omission are important devices that can be used to explain an idea more

effectively, or emphasize certain points, but only when used properly. When comparing two

similar things, it is a good idea to use the same words to describe their similar properties, and

explicitly leave out or include certain words to describe their differences. Consider, for

example, defining a mathematical structure by listing, say, 4 properties it satisfies. When

defining a similar structure that satisfies the first 3 of these, but not the last, one should use

the repeat the exact same words to describe the first 3 properties, and then emphasize the

absence of the last property, to contrast the two objects. However, repetition, when used to

describe the same thing with slightly different words, can cause confusion and doubt.

Omission of heavy computations, when they do not contribute to the main point of the

argument, can also be a useful tool to emphasize the main insight of a proof. Of course, when

used excessively, this might create further ambiguity, since the reader may not be able to

follow how the next line follows from the previous one.

It is worth mentioning that good math writing also involves learning to stop. It often feels to

the author that there is always one more topic to include, or one more way to improve the

writing. However, the author should know that there is no end to this cycle, and at one point,

they have to stop polishing and call it a final version, which might get surprisingly difficult.

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