How Math People can Approach Writing

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One of the ways in which I like to recognize that writing is a skill is that it can be easily distinguished from general intelligence. To be fair, there is definitely a connection. I’ve talked to psychologists and linguists who say one of the individual measures that are most closely related to general intelligence is the size of a person’s vocabulary. (This is because learning and retaining new words itself requires several cognitive faculties working together.) Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a genius to be a good writer. And just because you’re a genius doesn’t mean you’re automatically a good writer. Moreover, many people definitely find themselves to be more math people or more reading-and-writing people. “Math [or English] always my best subject in school,” they’ll typically say.

I’ve always thought that this separation between math and reading/writing was exaggerated, but it is there at least in terms of people’s relative strengths and weaknesses. To this point, adults who have already come to see themselves as a math person should use this knowledge base to approach writing—both in deepening their understanding of language and writing in particular. Here’s one of my favorite things to tell math people about writing:

In math, you are typically asked to find a solution to a problem. 9 x 12 = ?. The mathematician goes about calculating the answer: 108. In writing, you can still think of the process as numbers and combining groups of things, but it’s the process that’s all backwards. So, you’re given a piece of information: 108. In writing, the task becomes to convey this information to three different groups (or audiences as we think of them in writing). Now, there’s a trick. You can only use one numerical expression to communicate with all three groups, and each group has a different limitation:


Group 1 does not understand any numbers that are divisible by 3. So, you can’t say, “9 times 12” because the group doesn’t know what 9 or 12 are.


Group 2 doesn’t understand odd numbers. So, you can’t say, “53 plus 55.” Nor can you say, “109 minus 1.”


Group 3 doesn’t understand subtraction. So, you can’t say “108 is 110 minus 2.”


What do you do? This is why, in writing, you always have to first understand your audience. Interestingly, there are still an infinite number of right answers: “52 plus 52 plus 4.” “2 plus 8 plus 98.” The possibilities go on forever. But writing is never about getting the right answer. It’s more about making the best possible choice. You have to communicate a certain amount of information, but with points rewarded for brevity. “More elegant answers” are something mathematicians can understand. In writing AND in math, “50 plus 58” is a better answer than “52 plus 52 plus 4.”