More Tips on Book and Thesis Writing

Following my earlier post Top Five Tips on Book Writing, here are seven more tips. These apply equally well to writing a thesis.

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Book sculpture at Fudan University, Shanghai.

1. Signpost Citations

In academic writing we inevitably include a fair number of citations to entries in the bibliography. In a book, even more so than in a paper, we do not want the reader to have to turn to the bibliography every time a citation is reached in order to understand what is being cited. So a sentence such as

The matrix logarithm appears in a wide variety of applications
[2], [8], [14].

is better phrased as the more informative

The matrix logarithm appears in a wide variety of applications,
such as reduced-order models [2], image registration [8],
and computer animations [14].

Likewise, instead of

Versions of the algorithm have been developed by several authors
[1], [3], [7].

I would write

Versions of the algorithm have been developed by Chester [1], 
Hughes [3, Sec. 2], and Smith and Jones [7].

Even that example lacks information about the date of publication. In my books I have used my own version of the \LaTeX \cite macro that allows me to include the year:

Versions of the algorithm have been developed by Baker and
Chester [1, 2006], Hughes [3, 2001, Sec. 2], 
and Smith and Jones [7, 2004].

The macro is

\def\ycite[#1#2#3#4#5]#6{\cite[$\mit{#1#2#3#4}$#5]{#6}}

(which puts the year in the distinctive math italic font) and the first two citations in the previous sentence would be typed as \ycite[2006]{bach06} and \ycite[2001, Sec.~2]{hugh01}.

2. Produce a Good Index

A good index is essential, since it is the main way that readers can find content. The vast majority of books that I read have an inadequate index, as I have noted in my post A Call for Better Indexes at SIAM Blogs. Usually the index is too small. Occasionally the index is of about right length but is flawed. The main problems are

  • Items that should be indexed are absent from the index.
  • An index entry does not point to all (significant) occurrences of the term.
  • Related entries are not grouped properly.

Advice on producing an index can be found in Section 13.4 of my Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences and various other sources (try a Google search), and I intend to wrote a post on indexing soon.

\LaTeX, through its \index command, used in conjunction with the MakeIndex program, provides an excellent way to produce an index.

3. Use the Backref \LaTeX package

Backref.sty is a \LaTeX package that adds to each bibliography entry the text “cited on pages” and then lists the pages on which that item was cited. It costs nothing to use it, but it adds great value to the bibliography, which then functions as a separate index into the book. I started using backref with my book MATLAB Guide (2005). To a large extent it removes the need for an author index, and if I do a third edition of Accuracy and Stability of Numerical Algorithms I will probably use backref and drop the author index.

The backref package is not widely used, though a number of SIAM books have made use of it.

4. Use Hyperlinks

For a book provided in PDF form, hyperlinks from an equation reference to the equation, a citation to the bibliography entry, a URL to the web page, and so on, are a great aid to the reader. In \LaTeX obtaining the hyperlinks is usually just a matter of adding \usepackage{hyperref} in the pre-amble.

5. Make Figures Readable and Consistent

It’s very easy nowadays to produce figures containing plots of functions or computational results. But it’s much harder to produce a set of figures that

  • are clearly legible,
  • have labels, legends, and annotations that are of similar size to the main text,
  • are consistent in format (axes, line thicknesses etc.)

All too often I see figures in which the text is so small that I cannot read it at a normal reading distance. My experience (which is mainly with MATLAB, and with the \LaTeX packages TikZ and PGFplots) is that it is a time-consuming process to produce high quality plots. But it is worth the effort.

6. Use Short Captions in the List of Figures/Tables

The general form of the \LaTeX caption command is \caption[short caption]{long caption}. The short caption is what is printed in the List of Figures or List of Tables at the front of the book, if you are printing those lists. The short caption will be read in isolation from the figure or table so it should omit all unnecessary detail, such as explaining line or marker types. All too often, the short and long captions are the same, resulting in unnecessarily long and detailed lists of figures or tables.

Here is an example (simplified, with other macros removed) of the caption from a figure in my book Functions of Matrices:

\caption[Illustration of condition (b) of Theorem~11.4.]%
        {Illustration of condition (b) of Theorem~11.4,
         which requires every eigenvalue of $B$ to lie in the
         open half-plane (shaded) of the corresponding eigenvalue
         of $A^{1/2}$.}

7. Make the Header Contain the Section and Chapter Number and Title

I like to know where I am when I am reading a book, so I expect the page headers to tell me the section number and chapter number, and preferably their titles as well. I cannot understand why some books omit this information. Without it, phrases such as “as discussed in the previous chapter” become harder to follow up, and searching for a particular section is more difficult.

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