Thursday, June 30, 2011

Eating your vegetables: basic definitions and notations

As I am revising the draft of a paper, I am going over a section entitled "Terminology". Like many sections entitled "Basic definitions and notations" that I have written or read in the past, it is boring and seems pointless - until at some point in the paper you suddenly encounter an uncertainty about a precise definition, whose subtler details, heretofore unnoticed, could invalidate correctness, and you suddenly rush back to the definition to check that the details are consistent with your understanding.

The terminology section is like vegetables: a dreary but necessary part of the meal. Is there any way to put a little spice into it, I wonder?


  1. I just read a friend's grant proposal - she left all the standard-to-TCSers definitions to the last section of the proposal; only defining those interesting/non-standard definitions along the way. It read much nicer than the standard intro-definitions-meat way of doing things. I would think that for our 10-page conference papers, this would be the way to go. Don't most of us skip over definitions sections when reading or reviewing a paper? We put them in (necessarily) for newcomers to the field.

    I've also been a fan of minimal definitions - defining as you go and as little as necessary.

  2. +1 to Cora's answer, I would even suggest to put most definitions in the appendix.

    I usually hide the most basic ones in footnotes or between brackets at the first use of the notation or term, but always felt it to be akward.