TIPS FOR WRITING
in MATHEMATICS/STATISTICS CLASS
© 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000,
2001 Dr. Larry Lesser
REQUIREMENTS FOR PAPERS
Typed double-spaced, 12-point font (if your machine cannot handle a formula,
symbol, accent mark or diacritical, it may be carefully written in)
Complete citations (sufficient for me to track down the specific reference)
given for any books, articles, Internet sites(date, author and complete
address of the site), people, etc. used or referred to
Article critiques/reviews should include complete citation of the article
(see above), a summary of the main points in your own words, and then your
own constructive critique in which you describe what you consider the article's
strengths and weaknesses and interesting issues raised, making specific
connections to your own learning or experiences as appropriate.
Good diction, spelling, grammar, using first-person active voice when describing
Writing style appropriate for target audience
Self-contained format (not just list of answers), with clearly identified
sections: appropriate title, introduction, definition of variables and
their context, description of procedures used and discussion of their underlying
assumptions, reporting/summarizing of analysis with appropriate diagrams,
tables, charts included
Graphical displays should be appropriately and meaningfully titled, sized,
scaled and labelled, with no one figure split over more than one page without
a compelling reason. If you use visual aids such as bar charts,
make sure they are proportional in both height and area to the numbers
they are to represent. Make sure quantitative axes start at 0 if
at all reasonably possible, and have appropriate zig-zag mark if a portion
of the axis is omitted (or has a different scale). Click
for more information about statistical pitfalls.
Fractions: A horizontal fraction bar ("vinculum") is less
potentially confusing than a diagonal bar ("solidus"). If you cannot
get your word processor (Microsoft Word has "Equation Editor") to do a
vinculum, at least put in enough parentheses that there is no possibility
of confusing quantities such as 3 2/7 or 3 + 2/7.
Decimal Fractions: APA style tells us to place the decimal
point on the line and to use a zero before the decimal point (i.e., 0.23)
when numbers are less than 1 (unless the number can never be greater than
1). When writing out a number in words, use "and" only for a decimal
Percentages: If you give a percentage, make sure the reader knows
what the percentage base is. When no number is given, use the word percentage,
not percent and not the symbol %. Don't confuse 60% with .60% (60% = 6/10,
but .60% = 6/1000). (subtle distinctions from Milo
Schield: "percentage indicates a part-whole ratio. Percents are the
units of the ratio. Percents are to percentage as volts are to voltage."
and note that if interest rates go from 5% to 7%, the increase can be described
either as 40% or as 2 percentage points; also make sure your writing makes
clear what is the part and what is the whole -- "the percentage of men
who smoke is different from the percentage of men among smokers")
Working with Numbers: Avoid beginning a sentence with a number,
especially a number that is not written out (i.e., Don't write "8% of the
group exceeded expectations"). For readability, you may spell out one group
of numbers in a sentence with two groups of numbers, such as "On the test,
eighty students made no errors, forty-five made 1-3 errors, and twenty
made 4-10 errors." When giving measurements, you may use numerals
(whether or not the number is smaller than 100) and abbreviations (no periods
needed) for the measurement units, such as: 110 oz, 127 cm, 98.6 degrees
F, 9454 ft. (To look up any common unit of measurement , see http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/).
Symbols of measurement units do not need to be "made plural", but to form
plurals of numbers themselves, add s or es without using an apostrophe.
APA style tells us to put commas between groups of three digits (to the
left of a decimal point) in most figures of 1,000 or more, except for situations
such as page numbers, temperatures, acoustic frequencies, and serial numbers.
Distinguish appropriately between numbers and numerals.
Rounding: When you are choosing between two possibilities,
you are rounding, for example, to the nearer (not nearest) hundredths
place. When doing rounding, a good rule of thumb is to wait until
the final step of the computation to do any needed rounding, so that the
final answer is reported to the same precision as the least precise data
When describing arithmetic operations: you can say words
such as "exchange", "regroup", and "fair trade", but NOT words such as
"borrow" or "carry"; you can say "simplify" or "write
in simplest form", but NOT "reduce to lowest terms"; use correct
specific terminology such as multiplier, multiplicand, minuend, subtrahend,
addend, divisor, dividend, remainder, quotient, factor, multiple, least
common multiple, greatest common factor, etc., especially when definitions
or conceptual representation is the focus
Use correct subject/verb agreement. Complete the blank in
this example with is or are (hint: the subject is "fraction"): "What
fraction of the apples ____ green?" Complete the blank in this
example with is or are (hint: the subject is "vote"): "A two-thirds
vote ____ needed."
Do not be vague in your terminology. For example, when you
want to say that a figure "has symmetry" you must specify which of the
many kinds of symmetry (e.g., line, rotational, translational, with further
distinctions desirable: e.g., 180-degree rotational symmetry).
Also, in your mind and in your writing, distinguish between mathematical/statistical
meanings and everyday "lay" meanings of words such as: population,
average, random, independent, significance, bias.
Proofread! Going back and looking over your work (not during
the same sitting you wrote it) will often catch major errors (e.g., not
noticing that the printer cut off or smeared together some of the words
or graphs!) as well as more subtle ones. Click HERE
for proofreading tips.
Spell checkers WON'T catch certain errors (such as it's/its, their/they're/there,
you're/your, than/then) so make sure you can distinguish these and also
these pairs of words common in mathematics/statistics writeups:
discreet/discrete, principal/principle, effect/affect, likely/liable,
number/amount, less/fewer, accept/except, farther/further, ensure/insure,
(For some finer points on diction, think about why you should say "a
variable denoted by x", "Bayes' theorem", "data are"
and "chi-squared test", NOT "a variable denoted x", "Bayes
theorem", "data is" and "chi-square test", respectively.)
As one writer JOKES: "Don't, overuse, commas. It is best to never
ever split an infinitive. A preposition is not a good word to end
a sentence with. It's trivially clear that you shouldn't overuse
words like 'obviously'. Every sentence must a verb. The passive voice
is to be avoided. Exaggeration is a trillion times worse than understatement.
No sentence fragment. Run-on sentences are bad they make it hard
on the readers. Avoid cliches like the plague -- they're old hat.
Don't be redundant; don't use more words than is necessary; it's highly
superfluous. Don't be overly sesquipedalian. Having learned about dangling
modifiers, your paper will be error-free!"