How mathematical practices can improve your writing

Writing is similar to three specific mathematical practices: modelling, problem-solving and proving, writes Caroline Yoon. Here, she gives some tips on how to use these to improve academic writing

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16 Feb 2024
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I feel for my students when I hand them their first essay assignment. Many are mathematicians, students and teachers who chose to study mathematics partly to avoid writing. But in my mathematics education courses, and in the discipline more generally, academic writing is part of our routine practice.

Mathematicians face some challenging stereotypes when it comes to writing. Writing is seen as ephemeral, subjective and context-dependent, whereas mathematics is seen as enduring, universal and context-free. Writing reflects self, but mathematics transcends it: they are distinct from each other.

This is a false dichotomy that can discourage mathematicians from writing. It suggests writing is outside the natural skill set of the mathematician, and that one’s mathematics training not only neglects one’s development as a writer but actively prevents it. Rather than capitulate to this false dichotomy, I propose we turn it around to examine how writing is similar to three specific mathematical practices: modelling, problem-solving and proving.

Three mathematical practices that can improve your writing

Mathematical modelling

Let us consider a hypothetical mathematics education student who has spent weeks thinking, reading and talking about her essay topic, but only starts writing it the night before it is due. She writes one draft only – the one she hands in – and is disappointed with the low grade her essay receives.

She wishes she had started earlier but she was still trying to figure out what she wanted to say up until the moment she started writing. It was only the pressure of the deadline that forced her to start; without it, she would have spent even more time thinking and reading to develop her ideas. After all, she reasons, there is no point writing when you do not know what to write about!

This “think first, write after” approach, sometimes known as the “writing up” model is a dangerous trap many students fall into, and is at odds with the way writing works. The approach allows no room for imperfect drafts that are a necessary part of the writing process. Writing experts trade on the generative power of imperfect writing; they encourage writers to turn off their internal critics and allow themselves to write badly as a way of overcoming writing inertia and discovering new ideas. The “shitty first draft” is an ideal (and achievable) first goal in the writing process. Anyone can produce a sketchy first draft that generates material that can be worked on, improved and eventually rewritten into a more sharable form.

Mathematical modelling offers a compelling metaphor for the generative power of imperfect writing. Like polished writing, polished mathematical models are seldom produced in the first attempt. A modeller typically begins with some understanding of the real situation to be modelled. The modeller considers variables and relationships from his or her understanding of the real situation and writes them into an initial mathematical model.

The model is his or her mathematical description of the situation, written in mathematical notation, and the modeller who publishes a mathematical model has typically created and discarded multiple drafts along the way, just as the writer who publishes a piece of writing has typically written and discarded multiple drafts along the way.


Writing an original essay is like trying to solve a mathematics problem. There is no script to follow; it must be created by simultaneously determining one’s goals and figuring out how to achieve them. In both essay writing and mathematical problem-solving, getting stuck is natural and expected. It is even a special kind of thrill.

This observation might come as a surprise to mathematicians who do not think of their problem-solving activity as writing. But doing mathematics, the ordinary everyday act of manipulating mathematical relationships and objects to notice new levels of structure and pattern, involves scratching out symbols and marks, and moving ideas around the page or board.

Why do I care that mathematicians acknowledge their natural language of symbols and signs as writing? Quite frankly because they are good at it. They have spent years honing their ability to use writing to restructure their thoughts, to dissect their ideas, identify new arguments. They possess an analytic discipline that most writers struggle with.

Yet few of my mathematics education students take advantage of this in their academic writing. They want their writing to come out in consecutive, polished sentences and become discouraged when it does not. They do not use their writing to analyse and probe their arguments as they do when they are stuck on mathematical problems. By viewing writing only as a medium for communicating perfectly formed thoughts, they deny themselves their own laboratories, their own thinking tools.

I am not suggesting that one’s success in solving mathematical problems automatically translates into successful essay writing. But the metaphor of writing as problem-solving might encourage a mathematics education student not to give up too easily when she finds herself stuck in her writing.


Our hypothetical student now has a good draft that she is happy with. She is satisfied it represents her knowledge of the subject matter and has read extensively to check the accuracy of its content. A friend reads the draft and remarks that it is difficult to understand. Our student is unperturbed. She puts it down to her friend’s limited knowledge of the subject and is confident her more knowledgeable teacher will understand her essay.

But the essay is not an inert record judged on the number of correct facts it contains. It is also a rhetorical act that seeks to engage the public. It addresses an audience, it tries to persuade, to inspire some response or action.

Mathematical proofs are like expository essays in this regard; they must convince an audience. When undergraduate mathematics students learn to construct proofs of their own, a common piece of advice is to test them on different audiences. The phrase “Convince yourself, convince a friend, convince an enemy” becomes relevant in this respect.

Mathematicians do not have to see themselves as starting from nothing when they engage in academic writing. Rather, they can use mathematical principles they have already honed in their training, but which they might not have formerly recognised as tools for improving their academic writing.

Practical tips for productive writing beliefs and behaviours

  • Writing can generate ideas. Free writing is a good way to start. Set a timer and write continuously for 10 minutes without editing. These early drafts will be clumsy, but there will also be some gold that can be mined and developed.
  • Writing can be used to analyse and organise ideas. When stuck, try to restructure your ideas. Identify the main point in each paragraph and play around with organising their flow. 
  • Writing is a dialogue with the public. Seek out readers’ interpretations of your writing and listen to their impressions. Read your writing out loud to yourself: you will hear it differently!

Caroline Yoon is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Auckland.

This is an edited version of the journal article “The writing mathematician” by Caroline Yoon, published in For the Learning of Mathematics and collected in The Best Writing on Mathematics, edited by Mircea Pitici (Princeton University Press).

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