18.821 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

Project Laboratory in Mathematics


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In this section, Prof. Haynes Miller and Susan Ruff describe the criteria for good mathematical writing and the components of the writing workshop.

A central goal of the course is to teach students how to write effective, journal-style mathematics papers. Papers are a key way in which mathematicians share research findings and learn about others’ work. For each research project, each student group writes and revises a paper in the style of a professional mathematics journal paper. These research projects are perfect for helping students to learn to write as mathematicians because the students write about the new mathematics that they discover. They own it, they are committed to it, and they put a lot of effort into writing well.

Criteria for Good Writing

In the course, we help students learn to write papers that communicate clearly, follow the conventions of mathematics papers, and are mathematically engaging.

Communicating clearly is challenging for students because doing so requires writing precisely and correctly as well as anticipating readers’ needs. Although students have read textbooks and watched lectures that are worded precisely, they are often unaware of the care with which each word or piece of notation was chosen. So when students must choose the words and notation themselves, the task can be surprisingly challenging. Writing precisely is even more challenging when students write about insights they’re still developing. Even students who do a good job of writing precisely may have a different difficulty: providing sufficient groundwork for readers. When students are deeply focused on the details of their research, it can be hard for them to imagine what the reading experience may be like for someone new to that research. We can help students to communicate clearly by pointing out places within the draft at which readers may be confused by imprecise wording or by missing context.

For most students, the conventions of mathematics papers are unfamiliar because they have not read—much less written—mathematics journal papers before. The students’ first drafts often build upon their knowledge of more familiar genres: humanities papers and mathematics textbooks and lecture notes. So the text is often more verbose or explanatory than a typical paper in a mathematics journal. To help students learn the conventions of journal papers, including appropriate concision, we provide samples and individualized feedback.

Finally, a common student preconception is that mathematical writing is dry and formal, so we encourage students to write in a way that is mathematically engaging. In Spring 2013, for example, one student had to be persuaded that he did not have to use the passive voice. In reality, effective mathematics writing should be efficient and correct, but it should also provide motivation, communicate intuition, and stimulate interest.

To summarize, instruction and feedback in the course address many different aspects of successful writing:

  • Precision and correctness: e.g., mathematical terminology and notation should be used correctly.
  • Audience awareness: e.g., ideas should be introduced with appropriate preparation and motivation.
  • Genre conventions: e.g., in most mathematics papers, the paper’s conclusion is stated in the introduction rather than in a final section titled “Conclusion.”
  • Style: e.g., writing should stimulate interest.
  • Other aspects of effective writing, as needed.

To help students learn to write effective mathematics papers, we provide various resources, a writing workshop, and individualized feedback on drafts.

Writing Resources

Various resources are provided to help students learn effective mathematical writing.

The following prize-winning journal article was annotated to point out various conventions and strategies of mathematical writing. (Courtesy of Mathematical Association of America. Courtesy of a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

An Annotated Journal Article (PDF)

This document introduces the structure of a paper and provides a miscellany of common mistakes to avoid.

Notes on Writing Mathematics (PDF)

LaTeX Resources

The following PDF, TeX, and Beamer samples guide students to present their work using LaTeX, a high-quality typesetting system designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. The content in the PDF and TeX documents highlights the structure of a generic student paper.

Sample PDF Document created by pdfLaTeX (PDF)

Sample TeX Document (TEX)

Beamer template (TEX)

The following resources are provided to help students learn and use LaTeX.

LaTeX-Project. “Obtaining LaTeX.” August 28, 2009.

Downes, Michael. “Short Math Guide for LaTeX.” (PDF) American Mathematical Society. Version 1.09. March 22, 2002.

Oetiker, Tobias, Hubert Partl, et al. “The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX 2ε.” (PDF) Version 5.01. April 06, 2011.

Reckdahl, Keith. “Using Imported Graphics in LaTeX and pdfLaTeX.” (PDF) Version 3.0.1. January 12, 2006.

Writing Workshop

Each semester there is a writing workshop, led by the lead instructor, which features examples to stimulate discussion about how to write well. In Spring 2013, Haynes ran this workshop during the third class session and used the following slide deck, which was developed by Prof. Paul Seidel and modified with the help of Prof. Tom Mrowka and Prof. Richard Stanley.

The 18.821 Project Report (PDF)

This workshop was held before students had begun to think about the writing component of the course, and it seemed as if the students had to be reminded of the lessons of the workshop when they actually wrote their papers. In future semesters, we plan to offer the writing workshop closer to the time that students are drafting their first paper. We may also focus the examples used in the workshop on the few most important points rather than a broad coverage.

This video features the writing workshop from Spring 2013 and includes instruction from Haynes as well as excerpts of the class discussion.

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Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Other Video
Projects with Examples
Activity Assignments with Examples
Written Assignments with Examples
Presentation Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights