After I took my first analysis course and learned how to be truly "pedantic," I have always been having a dilemma of balancing myself between being "detailed" and "intuitive". I would like to ask how other Math SE people manage this problem. (If this is a duplicate, I would appreciate the link to the similar question, but I also want to ask some following questions if anyone answers this, so it is not completely duplicate.)

Of course, being detailed and intuitive should not be a duality, and I think anyone needs both aspects when it comes to learning mathematics. So, more specific question is: How do you fill up your details?

This question may be understood easily if one considers a very fast paced course or a book that skips many details.

For me, I have tried

  1. To write (TeX) up entire topic in my own notations and details (e.g. http://gycheong.wordpress.com/)
  2. Make details that I could not directly see as easy exercises and just prove them (on papers neatly and collect them).
  3. Read a chapter very briefly and accept whatever the author says without too much thinking and reread it very carefully.

So far, Method 1 (which I have been using for more than a year) hasn't been working very well. It took too much time and, to me, it started to seem like understanding and writing were not exactly the same. I think Method 1 is good when someone wants to review a course that he/she understood (but not always a good way for the first learning). I have switched to Method 2 for about a month and just started to use Method 3 for some subjects that interest me but are sides. Method 2 has been working very well and it also gives a solid background for dealing with more difficult problems that do not trivially follow from theories (again, this is just my thought as the word "trivial" is different for everyone).

I think I am safe to say I am an "average" undergraduate senior in math and I am hoping to continue mathematics as graduate level this September. I really hope to see various opinions from a variety of people in different stages of mathematics.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if you intentionally misspelled pedanticism as a test of our pedantry in correcting it:) $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2013 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ Terence Tao: There’s more to mathematics than rigour and proofs $\endgroup$
    – Emre
    Jan 20, 2013 at 5:41
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    $\begingroup$ I am addressing the first point (about $\TeX$) you have mentioned. I used to typeset notes in class and write down my math use $\LaTeX$, used $\text{TikZ}$ to draw nice pictures and blog my math as you have done. I had my own template for math classes and though it was initially productive, I was not able to concentrate that well in math classes. I found that I was spending too much time in decorating and getting things neatly presented in $\LaTeX$ and I managed to get very less of the actual mathematics I want to do done. $\endgroup$
    – user17762
    Jan 20, 2013 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ These days I use a tablet, which has a good note taking software, to take notes in class, write down thoughts that come to mind and I find that I am more productive using tablet than using a computer to type. One of the advantages with a tablet is that it gives you an additional degree of freedom to do some random writing on the side when you take down notes and note down something immediately in the class. I have stopped typesetting my math notes these days and though sometimes my handwriting is not as neat as I want to, I am willing to sacrifice some neatness for getting some more math done. $\endgroup$
    – user17762
    Jan 20, 2013 at 5:50
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    $\begingroup$ I do not know about being pedantic but there is no reason to be excessively romantic. When in doubt, wait for convergence :) $\endgroup$
    – Anon
    Jan 20, 2013 at 6:14

2 Answers 2


Let me first refer you to Terrence Tao's wonderful post on this subject.

As a person who is just starting to exit the hyper-pedantic stage in a few sub-fields I both feel your pain and feel that I might have a little bit of insight from the other side. Let me start off by answering your question: I fill in the details slowly and repeatedly. I am particularly fond of von Neumann's famous line that in mathematics we 'do not understand things [we] get used to them'. Learning anything in mathematics is a process, not a result--it never ends. I do not feel there is much of a point in trying to do everything at once. I am not sure that there is a best approach to this, but I can offer the one I typically use.

To start with, I always try to find the intuition. Forget rigor until you have a good moral reason why you think the statement is true or false. If you get stuck, ask someone who works in that field how they think about it (I pretty much always do this even if I don't get stuck). Find a special case you think might tell the whole story or draw a picture you think is indicative of the general result, then see if you can make the intuition rigorous yourself. This may take a while, so don't hesitate to read and try to understand the proof in your book if you need to move on, but keep working on the problem. I really want to stress this: it is much more useful to find out where your intuition fails than to learn another theorem.

Now suppose that you have found your own argument and proven it. Look at the author's proof and ask why they chose the argument they chose. If your intuition is good or the result is trivial, then your argument should be essentially the same as the book's. If not, compare the two proofs. Is the book's solution cleaner than yours? Is it faster? Is it more elementary? Double check to make sure you didn't miss any details. It's worth going line by line and asking yourself why the author is doing all the thing they are doing. If you didn't come up with a rigorous proof of the intuition, this is even more important. Look at the proof and see if you can work backwards to the intuition that led the author to write the proof the way they did.

While I think that it is worthwhile to fill in the details of the author's argument, that is much less important than learning how to think like a professional mathematician. This is where the repetition comes in: come up with a different heuristic and see if you can make that rigorous too. Constantly compare what you are doing with what the book does and ask yourself why the author takes the approach they take. Keep reading then periodically go back and see if you understand better why the material is structured the way it is. In class, don't be afraid to ask (yourself or the professor) why you are using one argument style over another.

Let me also comment that there will come a point when you cannot fill in all of the details in your textbooks. Some of the time, it will be because the textbook is just plain wrong. This is especially common in higher level books, though there were some notorious examples in the last version of Royden (which were only removed a couple of years ago). If you get stuck, don't be afraid to work with others or ask questions of people who understand the material well. Mathematics is collaborative. Very few people succeed in isolation.

As a final note, I spend an enormous amount of my study time thinking about mathematical aesthetics. Style is real and it is important. Typically beautiful arguments are the ones that are clean and generalize--in short, they are the arguments worth learning. Don't be afraid to use secondary sources to supplement your learning, but make sure you find authors who have a good sense of mathematical style. Try to use works from authors who are known to write well. This will also help you develop a better big-picture view and learn new proof techniques (both of which help your intuition and rigor).


It can help to learn in a "big picture first" style. You can get the big picture of what the theorems are and how they fit together, and only fill in the details later if you need to. Deciding which math topics to master is an act of triage.

Ravi Vakil has commented:

"...mathematics is so rich and infinite that it is impossible to learn it systematically, and if you wait to master one topic before moving on to the next, you'll never get anywhere. Instead, you'll have tendrils of knowledge extending far from your comfort zone. Then you can later backfill from these tendrils, and extend your comfort zone; this is much easier to do than learning 'forwards'."


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