Ask Uncle Colin: How can I be neater?

Dear Uncle Colin,

I keep being told my work needs to be tidier, but I'm not really sure how to go about that. Do you have any suggestions?

- My Exercises Skew Scruffy

Hello, MESS, and thanks for your message. I totally feel your pain. In honesty, this is like asking Bob Dylan for advice on how to sing better - I once had a comment on my homework saying it worked as a piece of maths, but not as a piece of calligraphy. I do have some tips, though:

  • Try to give yourself space. Leave space between lines.
  • If you need to delete something, cross it out neatly (don’t scribble).
  • Anticipate how much space you will need. If you’re going to run out of room on a line, don’t try to cram it in. If you’re going to run out of room on a page, come up with a plan for where to go next!
  • Draw diagrams big. They’re much easier to interpret and label.
  • When rewriting (assuming you have time to), try to organise as you go. Split your work up into logical groups.
  • If you can, label each quantity you're working with. If you're working out an area of a triangle as part of a complicated question, put "(area of triangle)" after it.

I hope there's something there to help!

- Uncle Colin


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


5 comments on “Ask Uncle Colin: How can I be neater?

  • Alan Parr

    A while back I wrote about what a teacher said to me when I visited:

    “When I see a page of 50 neat answers and 50 red ticks I see proof of a poor maths lesson.  I see lack of challenge and wasted opportunity”.

    There were three things about this teacher which gave her remarks special weight.

    She was a Head.

    She was an Inspector.

    All her work was in the independent sector.

    Continued at:

    All good wishes,


    • Colin

      I agree, but I fear we’re addressing slightly different points: in solving a problem, mess is often a fine thing (so long as it remains legible to the solver and not a source of errors). In presenting a solution, laying out one’s work neatly is a reasonable courtesy to extend.

      • Alan Parr

        I agree of course, but I would offer two points: [a] while it may be reasonable to ask that REPORTING on a task is presented coherently, the DOING of an inquiry is not necessarily straightforward – when I ask a group of teachers or parents to do a task and then ask how they’d grade their partners for neatness there’s always some rather embarrassed titters.
        [b] The other problem, and it’s a big one, is that a lot of children get through their early mathematics not through insight or understanding, but by following rules and procedures ad nauseam, and these include underlining carefully in the right place, etc. We overvalue this neatness and see it as evidence of ability. It must be 20 or 30 years since Jo Boaler observed that upper sets are disproportionately full of children – mainly girls of course – who are there simply because they’ve been co-operative and followed the rules, and consequently have the most miserable time (made all the more miserable because their very co-operativeness means they don’t make a fuss).

  • Barney Maunder-Taylor

    All good advice, thanks Colin.

    My daughter (now 13) taught me the beauty of using two columns when she was at Primary School. The idea is to use a ruler to divide the page into two columns of equal width. The benefits are firstly to reduce how often you have to turn the page over in the middle of a question, and secondly the reduced width forces one to set out answers more neatly (for instance you quickly find you need to start writing over towards the left of each column, rather than in the middle of a page as many people have a tendency to do). This system also saves paper, although I think in general it’s a good thing NOT to worry about how much paper you are using when doing maths! One limitation: it only works for certain types of maths, I tend to abandon this system from mid-A-level onwards as I then tend to find it necessary to use the entire width of the page, but it’s certainly useful to experiment with.

    • Colin

      Good stuff, Barney!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up for the Sum Comfort newsletter and get a free e-book of mathematical quotations.

No spam ever, obviously.

Where do you teach?

I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

On twitter