When people tell me they love math and science but hate writing, I always tell them how mathematical writing is. It never fails to get me a puzzled stare, but once I explain it they see it is clear as day. After all, I’m not a genius, I just spend a lot of time thinking about things. This revelation came to me way back in college when I was writing a paper on Chaucer for one class and taking calculus in another.

I like math. It makes sense, and if it’s not working, there is always a logical reason. The truth is, writing is exactly the same way. If a passage you are writing isn’t working, there is a logical, fixable reason why. It might be word choice; it might be a setting description; or as is my problem right now, it might be pacing. It’s a problem, yes, but it can be repaired with a little hard work.

Still you wonder, math? Let me explain.

Take an easy problem a²+b²=c². A classic, right? In order to solve this problem, you have to follow a prescribed set of steps in a fairly prescribed order. Step one: chose variables for two of your unknowns, say a=3 and b=4. Step two: square and add them, 3²=9, 4²=16, 9+16=25. Step three: 25=c² so take the square root of 25 which is 5. Answer: c=5. Easy, logical, immutable.

Writing, of course, is very “mutable” depending on your purpose, but it must also be logical. You can’t skip any steps if you want to prove your point, and this applies to fiction as well as non-fiction, or else you lose your reader. For example, take my story Megan’s Christmas Knight. The main idea is learning to forgive yourself for your mistakes. Step one: the world is full of people with problems of significance, as Megan sees when Nick sends her to check out people who need his help. Step two: you can do good for the world, but not if you bog down in your own history, which is just that, history. Step three: after you have this perspective, when you look at it within the context of the situation, it is usually true that your transgression was not so horrible as you think it was. Nobody’s perfect. Step four: Do what you can to apologize and make it right, then get on with your life.

Do you see? Megan has to be drawn outside herself by focusing on the problems of others in order to gain perspective on her incident, which is actually just a lapse of judgement and unworthy of all the drama she creates around it. It is my job as writer/mathematician to prove my point logically. If I skip any steps in the process, Megan never learns to forgive herself, and the reader doesn’t believe she deserves forgiving. Presented logically, the reader easily follows the steps in Megan’s journey and sees her grow as a person. It is all about feelings, but you can’t skip any steps or the reader won’t feel what you want them to feel.

Math and writing. Two sides of the same coin.

2 responses to “Writing Mathematically”

  1. Everydaylife Avatar

    i enjoy reading this i try to stay away from math lol


    1. bethwarstadt Avatar

      I have had writing students–young ones–say the same thing. With them, I took a different approach. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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