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Recently, some classmates and I were lamenting the fact that our classmates in other disciplines had almost no conception of what we did, despite the large mathematics population at Waterloo. Instead of giving up in the face of a Very Hard Problem, one of us brought up a column popularizing physics that had a brief run in the school paper, and suggested that we author something similar for mathematics. The column will have some particular constraints that seem challenging to satisfy (self-contained week to week, 500-700 words, try to cover at least some of the current research at UW) but this question is a more general one.

In looking for resources and guidance to help with the writing we have come across several good discussions of topic. We have also found examples of good popular writing and a general discussion of presenting mathematics to a non-mathematical audience.

What we have not found, on MathOverflow or elsewhere, is a popular analogue of the well-answered question "How to write mathematics well?". A lot of the tactical advice of Knuth, Halmos, and others goes out the window when you answer their first question, "Who is your audience?" with "a general university educated public".

What is your advice for writing good mathematics for a popular audience? What holds for all styles of writing and what is article or book specific?

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I want to add to my answer: kudos for doing this! –  JSE Dec 21 '11 at 20:12
I wanted to give another short answer to the question "How to write popular mathematics well": Like Timothy Gowers in the book "Mathematics - A very short introduction". –  Kofi Dec 28 '11 at 22:39

14 Answers 14

I get asked this question a lot, so I'll give my pat (but serious) answer:

Find yourself an editor.

That is, find someone who'll take what you think is crystal clear, engaging prose, and turn it into something that actually is crystal clear and engaging. I couldn't do my job without my editors. (For those who don't know me, I work as a freelance mathematics writer. I report on developments in mathematics for publications such as Science magazine and SIAM News.) It's very easy, especially when writing about a subject you know inside out, to fool yourself into thinking you've explained things so that any fool can understand it; it's equally easy, when reading someone else's writing, to notice they haven't explained things very well. A good editor will, at the least, point out your failings. A great editor will fix them.

Now if I can only find someone to edit this posting....

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Who's your editor ? –  Chandan Singh Dalawat Dec 22 '11 at 4:24
@Barry: Presumably you want an editor who is not nearly as mathematically literate as you are? Could you comment on the qualities of the ideal editor? –  Joseph O'Rourke Dec 22 '11 at 17:11
@Chandan, I've had the good luck to work with some truly outstanding people, including my current editors, Robert Coontz at Science and Gail Corbett at SIAM News. Especially Gail, who's been at SIAM the whole time I've been writing for them. –  Barry Cipra Dec 22 '11 at 19:57
@Joseph, not necessarily. My editor for several volumes of What's Happening in the Mathematical Sciences, for example, was Paul Zorn, who's no slouch at math. The key thing to look for in an editor, I'd say, is simply a fresh pair of eyes. Most of us tend to get locked into one way of saying things, and when we reread our own work we often don't notice the unnecessary words or the incomplete thoughts. (Many years ago I wrote a short story in which I described something as a "rectangular square." It took a friend to ask the question, Was that to distinguish it from a trapezoidal square?) –  Barry Cipra Dec 22 '11 at 20:40
Thanks, Barry, that is not the answer I expected, and all the more useful for that reason. –  Joseph O'Rourke Dec 22 '11 at 20:55

I feel I should have a good answer to this question, since I've been writing about mathematics for the general public for many years -- but after some thought, I'm not coming up with any specific advice.

But I can say this. To write about popular mathematics well, you must write well. Your explication of the main idea can be as clear and correct as you like, but if the sentences lie dead on the page, no one is going to read your column. And this applies doubly, given that you're asking people to read about a topic that, in most cases, they don't think they care about.

So I think the best advice you're going to get won't come from us, but from people and books that have something to say about English prose generally: Strunk & White and its successors.

The short version of all such books: Vary sentence structure. Read what you write aloud. Imitate things you like. Avoid cliche. And, above all, cut all words that are not doing work.

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+1. Off-topic, but Strunk and White regularly gets a shoe-ing over at Language Log (albeit for reasons I don't always agree with). –  Yemon Choi Dec 21 '11 at 19:39
I agree absolutely that to write mathematics well, you must write well. This is a (the?) key point. (But I really do not like Strunk and White. Read and study good writers on any topic.) –  Chris Godsil Dec 22 '11 at 2:41
Sorry, I have no particular brief for Strunk and White and it's been years since I even looked at it! I seem to remember William Zinsser's On Writing Well also being good. The best I know is John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, but many of the lessons there aren't applicable to the original question. –  JSE Dec 22 '11 at 3:11
Perhaps a good sense of humour could be usefull. I like it in Frank Stewart's bridge column http:\\baronbarclay.com/stewart.html –  Denis Serre Dec 22 '11 at 7:36

If you are trying to get good at something, whether it be an art or a sport or a game, certain basic principles always apply.

  1. Aim high. Don't flatter yourself that you're already pretty good. If you have not already worked hard at honing your skill, chances are you suck. Study the masters. Why are they so much better than you are? Identify what makes their performances shine, and train yourself at the same techniques.

  2. Ferret out your weaknesses ruthlessly and work hard at eliminating them. If you can't see your own weaknesses, find a coach who can. (As Barry Cipra mentioned, a good editor can fulfill this role.) Don't get defensive if someone criticizes you; welcome all criticism and try to extract something useful from any feedback you get.

  3. Practice regularly. This means taking the time to work at improving your skill even when there is no immediate reward.

For popular mathematical writing in particular, I would add another tip: Don't assume that your audience will find what you have to say interesting. I'm even tempted to recommend that you assume that your audience will find you boring, but that would be going a little too far. The point is, you must take it upon yourself to make your writing interesting. Aim to write something that the readers won't be able to put down, that they will want to tell all their friends about, that will change their whole outlook on the subject. You won't always succeed, but you will certainly fail to do your best if you don't aim high.

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How not to write popular math:

Cheating: spreading false math to communicate easily, spreading the false impression that some things are easy when they are not and, on the contrary, clouding behind mysteries things that could be explained. Taking short cuts which are plainly false. Appealing to magic.

Concentrating on personal stories. While it is undoubtable that a good story is always the easiest way to keep the attention high, and that information on people that did math helps in conveying some good math, I found that recently, in way too many popular math books, biographical notes are overwhelming the math content.

Let me end with an example of both. In many popular books about infinity and math stories about mental illness of Cantor or Godel abounds and are more or less explicitly linked with "devoting thoughts to infinity". This is used to shroud infinity into a cloak of mystery, some magic world in which one can lose his mind, and to raise attention. This is, in my opinion, doing a very bad job both in popularizing math and in writing a story.

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Both these pieces of advice are wrong. It is possible to cheat to much, and too focus too much on personalities rather than the mathematics. But even in talks for professionals, some cheating is often useful and personal anecdotes help to keep the audience connected. –  Chris Godsil Dec 28 '11 at 16:22
Both these pieces of advice are correct. Though even in talks for professionals some cheating is useful and personal anecdotes help to keep the audience connected, it has become widespread the use of cheating too much and focusing too much on personalities rather than math. (we agree it is a matter of "how much"; personally I find that the current trend is on "too much" rather than "too little" and writing biographies of mathematicians is a different task from popularizing math, this is often forgotten, imho of course) –  Nicola Ciccoli Dec 29 '11 at 9:10

One piece of negative advice, to avoid a common fault in popular maths books: work out carefully what your audience is and write for that audience. I call that negative advice because it's really the contrapositive that concerns me: don't, for example, carefully explain how to add complex numbers and then a few pages later refer without explanation to a manifold as having trivial homology. (That sounds too obvious to be worth saying. Unfortunately, it isn't.)

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This is a great question, with many possible answers. Here are some of the guidelines that I try (and often fail) to follow in my writing:

  • With mathematical writing, as with any writing, think clearly about the story you are trying to tell. Consider why this might be interesting and ruthlessly remove even the most fascinating parts that do not push the story forward.
  • Watch your language, watch for any words that have a use or meaning in mathematical writing, there are some surprises ("admits" for example) try to remove these, or justify why you need them.
  • Do not be frightened to go slow, mathematical ideas we understand well can often seem trivial. Yet also respect your audience, tackle the big ideas. Remember that you are communicating the general ideas and not the specific technical details.
  • Be concrete, an example can often show an idea off well, and do not forget counterexamples, these can often be more informative than the ones that fit it.
  • Finally, whenever possible, use a picture, they can allow people far deeper into the mathematical ideas than words alone.

Good luck with your wonderful experiment.

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I would say the following: Don't try to give "applications" for math you develop. Do not try to write the n + 1st book on "101 occurences of math in daily life".

I think, many authors fool themselves with the idea, people would get interested in math if just they had enough examples of real world applications. I think that is nonsense. If you see math just as a vehicle to solve problems, you are not really interested in math itself, you are interested in the results that math gives you and you don't care about how to derive them. Nobody cares about a science that just exists to help other fields. It's just something, people that suck in math want to talk you into: If they just knew, how they could USE all that math stuff, they would be interested on the spot. As if!

Also, don't underestimate your readers. Don't go too fast but be somewhat remanding. Math is not for everyone, but rewards people that are willing to put in some effort. A good book should reflect that.

So, what should a good book about math for non-mathematicians be like? Well, in my opinion it should not so much be about solving of practical problems. Rather, if it shall give a feeling of what math is like, it should introduce into mathematical thinking. In the MO thread "What book would you write if you just had the time", someone talked about a book about category theory for non-mathematicians. Though this may be a bit to heavy, I think this goes into the right direction:

Making people understand, how math can make them able to get a better understanding of the world, even without solving actual problems. Because that is what math is about in my opinion.

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"I think, many authors fool themselves with the idea, people would get interested in math if just they had enough examples of real world applications." This is true, but I think many other authors fool themselves with the idea that people would get interested in math if we tried to convey the non-practical, non-useful reasons that we ourselves are interested in it. It's a tough problem. –  JSE Dec 22 '11 at 19:40
@Kofi: but I thought the question was about writing for an audience who do not intend to specialize in mathematics, and where the aim is not to "lure them in" to mathematics; merely to show them why we are interested in it –  Yemon Choi Dec 22 '11 at 23:58
Fighting that uphill battle is the very meaning of "popularization." –  JSE Dec 23 '11 at 13:03
I don't know why writing a popular book should be fighting an uphill battle. When people read a book, they do it because they are interested in the subject. Of course, if it is in their free time, they want a book that is a somewhat easy read, and you have to write accordingly. I don't understand why you see this as a battle. I think thats a perspective that many mathematicians take because they automatically assume that everyone else finds math boring. I would say, if you have that perspective to begin with, there is no point in writing a book about math, because nobody reads books about –  Kofi Dec 23 '11 at 15:46
... boring things. I don't understand why you read my post as statement against popularization. The opposite is the case. But if you write, say, a history book, what are you writing for: People who are interested in history or people who hate history? Well, it's your choice. I think by the way, that my original post made my point pretty clear: If you just focus on how you can USE math, you are not really helping in creating awareness of what math is about. –  Kofi Dec 23 '11 at 15:51

There is a discussion of some of these issues in articles on my web page on `Popularisation and Teaching'


and the 1989 article 'Making a mathematical exhibition' discusses the conclusions we came to after 4 years preparing an exhibition on `Mathematics and knots', which you can see as part of


The point was that we were using knots to say some things about mathematics to the general public; so you have to decide what it is you are trying to convey.

The advantage of knots as a basis for discussion is that everyone can understand the basic ideas and problems.

As I popular and important book which I think has not been mentioned on MO as an example of good writing, here is The Nothing That is: A Natural History of Zero Robert Kaplan (Author), Ellen Kaplan (Introduction) (1999). Grothendieck wrote to me in 1982: "The introduction of the cipher 0 or the group concept was general nonsense too, and mathematics was more or less stagnating for thousands of years because nobody was around to take such childish steps ..." (I had mentioned the resistance to the idea of groupoid.) The story is interesting partly because of the resistance to the idea of nothing, which was associated in some minds with the devil, and chaos, and also in the way that a conceptual change had such profound results. One reason for these results was that it led to a notation which better reflected the operations one wanted to do on numbers, particularly multiplication, and the ability to calculate insurance better led, it might be thought, to the prosperity of Venice. All from counting the number of elements in an empty box! But more likely, from the mark of a thumb in sand as a place maker on an abacus, so associated with calculation.

So part of the story of maths is that of conceptual revolutions, which enabled difficult things to become easy, which of course then enables the practice of more difficult things, and that is one of the roles of mathematics.

Many people want to hear of such conceptual revolutions, rather than of the solution of some problem famous for its difficulty, and perhaps also for the difficulty of understanding its significance for the general world.

My own take on the importance of mathematics is that it develops rigorous languages for expression, description, deduction, verification, and calculation. There is also the notion of mathematical structure as a method of modelling the real world.

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All of us, I think, have occasion now and then to try to explain what we do to a bright and genuinely interested non-mathematician. My advice for writing is to keep track of what seems to work in conversation and then write that down.

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I am far away being an expert in writing popular mathematics but I like to read them (as most math people do), and I wanted share my experience. Actually, my experience is mostly based on the articles that I read in Matematik Dünyası (Mathematics World, in English) which is a popular mathematics magazine in Turkish.

i. The topic that you are writing about should be interesting. Otherwise, no matter what you do, you cannot make people enjoy it. But in this case, you should be considering what is "interesting". Though it is very hard to attract every single reader, I believe in most cases immediate applications of theorems work. Also, you should be considering your audience. To whom do you write?

ii. Language is very important. As Halmos suggests, we should remember that mathematics is a form of language. Readers need very clear explanations. Moreover, I believe that asking questions throughout the text is good. Asking "Why?" in the middle of a transition step of a proof would be attracting the enthusiastic reader.

Furthermore, again, as Halmos suggests in his "automathography", just stating what you do in sentences instead of doing all the calculations is good for the reader.

iii. Images are important to keeping up with the text. Otherwise, the text might be too abstract.

As I said, these are just things that I like to see in a popular mathematics text, not ideas of an expert.

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Perhaps you should be asking how NOT to write popular mathematics well. The moment you create a template based on these excellent answers, you would lose your authentic tone or signature if you will.

So it depends on what popular mathematics you would like to read. For a student like me I always enjoy author who can maintain certain lucidity with his natural tone and who does not insult the reader's intelligence. By latter I mean who is adept at simplifying without dumbing down for audience. (For instance, I believe when Jeopardy! initially aired they wanted to "dumb down" the show but Merv Griffin did not want so.)

Recently I read Stalking Riemann Hypothesis by Dan Rockmore and because of the nature of the content author intentionally paused to explain concepts such as random matrices, Tracy-Widom distribution, eigenvalue etc. which would be accessible to even high schools students yet capture attention of mature readers. Rockmore used brief biographical snippets of people involved which made his book as enjoyable as Keith Devlin's The Millennium Problems and Mathematical Mountaintops by J.L.Casti.

To recapitulate 1) find a style that works for you; and 2) choose an interesting topic and your audience.

To permit me a transcendentalist quote:

"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

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Regarding Mathematical Mountaintops I recommend taking a look at the AMS Notices commentary by Allyn Jackson at ams.org/notices/200206/commentary.pdf -- among other things, it suggests something else not to do when writing a popular math (or any other) book. –  Barry Cipra Dec 28 '11 at 23:19

As a graduate students I was forced (not really, I actually enjoyed) to read several long papers/essays how to write mathematics by people like Halmos who really knew how to it well, but my favorite advice came out of Chinese fortune cookie: "Good writing is clear thinking made visible".

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If the authors of fortune cookies know that much about good writing, why is most of what is written on them ambiguous bullshit? (You might be recognizing a quote I am cannibalizing here.) –  darij grinberg Dec 22 '11 at 2:54
In French: Ce qui se conçoit bien s'énonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire nous viennent aisément (Boileau) –  Denis Serre Dec 22 '11 at 7:34
Supposedly Bohr said "never express yourself more clearly than you think". –  Tom Leinster Dec 22 '11 at 18:16
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” (Einstein, "in effect") quoteinvestigator.com/2011/05/13/einstein-simple/#more-2363 –  Gerald Edgar Dec 27 '11 at 13:23
You know, I've never understood that quote of Bohr's... –  Todd Trimble Dec 28 '11 at 13:09

Well, here are some things to avoid when writing popular math:

  • Journalistic gullible – there is nothing worse than reading pages and pages empty of meaning;
  • Treating the readers as mentally retarded people – it’s insulting. As they say: things should be explained as simply as possible, but not simpler!
  • Being afraid to challenge the readers – if they read a math book, they expect it;
  • Talking to the reader from above – avoiding the “professor” tone.

I hope this helps.

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What purpose serve the downvotes, if you don't leave a comment explaining it? –  Sandokan Dec 28 '11 at 10:20

I think the answer is simple.

1) Read, and as widely as possible.

2) Write, as much as possible.

3) Compare what you learn (what works and doesn't) in reading to writing and vice versa.

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