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Revision: How to Write Mathematics by Halmos

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.