31

Whenever I write an article, I feel the result is not good enough. Although every theorem is solid and correctly proven, something is always "squeaky".

The main evidence for my feeling shows itself when my co-authors revise theorem I've written. Suddenly everything becomes compact, precise and clear. Properties that were used several times get a name; modular parts of the proof become lemmas; etc. The math remains the same, but the presentation is way more efficient and easy to follow.

How can I improve my technical writing skills? Any tips and resources would be appreciated.
Comment: I'm not a native English speaker, which is an additional factor.

12

I was in similar situation than yours during my PhD: my proofs were correct, but tedious to read, and every time one my co-author rewrote them, they looked so much clearer! I wouldn't say that now my proofs are perfect, but they have definitely improved. I would associate this improvement with the following factors:

  • my english has improved with time, and I can now use more variations of the "proof vocabulary".
  • I have been working with different authors, so I've been exposed to different proof styles.
  • I have been writing more proofs, and as Artem's perfectly said, the more you write, the more you get feedback, the better you get.
  • I have read and given feedback to other people proofs, so I've started to noticed what I like/don't like on a proof that I haven't written.

So I know it sounds like a dull advice, but I think that it's some skill you acquire with time and experience. Also, there is a wonderful paper from Leslie Lamport: How to write a proof. This paper is not so much about how to write an elegant proof, but rather how to structure your proof. However, once you have a nice structure, I believe it's much easier to make it more elegant. Also, I try now as much as possible to encode my proofs in a theorem-prover (such as Isabelle/Isar), as it helps me understanding for instance what proof steps I can extract and generalize as lemmas.

13

The only way to improve writing (technical or non-technical) is by writing and submitting your work to the criticism of peers. Thankfully, in mathematics there is a culture of blogs. When you learn something new, write it up on your blog and share it with your friends. This will help you better understand what you wrote AND let you practice writing. At first, you won't get much feedback, but as your audience grows you will naturally learn from the feedback they provide.

Another great tool is math.SE and mathoverflow; on these sites you are guaranteed feedback. Ask and answer technical questions, this will let you practice your writing. As your writing and clarity improves you will also notice an average increase in number of up-votes, etc. This will give you useful positive reinforcement.

  • 5
    It also helps to look critically at other people's writing. It's often easier to see ways to improve text that you didn't write, because you don't have a vested interest in the result. – JeffE Mar 15 '12 at 10:41
  • 2
    I've started my own blog for exactly this reason. Granted, my blog isn't related to my research work, but the only way to get better at something is to do it, and writing is no exception. – eykanal Mar 15 '12 at 14:56
  • 3
    @JeffE: That was going to be my other piece of advice: read papers by good and bad mathematicians, and learn from their examples what works—and what doesn't. – aeismail Mar 15 '12 at 21:22
  • 1
    Thanks for the answer. I'm not sure writing a Blog suits many people, but I really like the idea of answering math.SE question as a way to practice writing skils. – Ran G. Mar 18 '12 at 4:24
5

I haven't read all of them but may I suggest the following:

4
  • Paul Halmos was a master expositor, and one of my favorite articles on writing is his: How to Write Mathematics

  • A more detailed collection of advice can be found in: Mathematical Writing, by Knuth, Larrabee, and Roberts

  • But as other answers have stated, the only way to improve your writing is to write (and to get feedback, and take that feedback to heart)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.