English, Mathematics

The Importance of Math for a Writer

STEM and the Humanities can get along once in a while. And this is one of those time – I believe frequent math problem solving can help a writer become more methodical (and math is also just good for your mental ‘strength’ in general).

There are browser tabs that I have open at all times – Duolingo, Lingq, and KhanAcademy. They all serve the same purpose in different way: to help me continue to learn now that I am out of college and to prevent the atrophy of what I spent the last two decades learning.

The first two are language learning tools – I have to maintain and improve my three modern languages and two ancient. This is not an easy task and sometimes I can go weeks without improving, but merely maintaining. But that is far better than regressing over those weeks.

The second service, however, I use almost exclusively for improving. I’m fully willing to admit that I not only paid little attention in high school and college math, but that what I learned then, I have now forgotten. At this rate I cannot imagine the state my mathematics education would be in in a decade or two of negligence.

However, this degradation is insidious. It’s like rust. Perhaps you see a small spot on the door of your car, but it’s hard to see so who cares? Well two winters later the inside of your door has rusted out and you need to get a whole new one. It is the same with mathematics for me; one day I realized I didn’t know an obscure integration rule, the next I forgot the lion’s share of my calculus!

Calculus is one of the crucial discoveries in the history of man. Knowing it is something to be proud of even if it is not particularly useful in day to day life. Further, once your calculus has rotted out, the rust proceeds to even more basic maths like trigonometry and geometry. At this point it can actually start to affect you.

This is a realization that I had all at once, I had completely ignored the rot of my mathematical learning for several years in university. I was focused on the humanities and my geology research required comparatively little math outside of a few specialized formulas. But when I was preparing to apply to business school, the curtains were thrown wide open and the view was ugly.

I aced the written and verbal sections of the GMAT, almost perfects scores. My math scores, however, left a lot to be desired. And when I say a lot to be desired, I mean basically everything was left to be desired. I was in the 34th percentile.

The disparity between the two was huge and I knew I had to close it before I could start applying to schools. So I laid those plans aside and decided to move abroad to work, study, and gain experience.

And to study math.

Starting from the ground up (as I don’t know what I don’t know) I am rebuilding my mathematical skills. Perhaps building would be more apt as every day I realize just how little attention I paid in math class.

Having always preferred reading, writing, and language (you know, the things that can’t help you get employed!) I massively neglected my math learning. And now that I am righting this wrong, I see how much I missed out on. And I’m not talking about grades.

Routine math practice has made me more methodical and driven to solve problems. With a math problem you know that there is a solution, but you might have no clue how to get to it. But you know there is a solution. It’s not much different than writing in that regard, you might know what you are trying to say or have a blurry outline of the direction you want to go in, but you don’t know what tools will get you there (or even if you have those tools).

Large math problems also cement the idea of small steps toward a far away destination. you can’t rush math (usually) the way that you can rush writing. If you want to get the correct answer to a complicated problem you can’t skip steps or hurry through them and still succeed. It’s impossible. Math makes you slow down.

With writing, one could in his excitement run through an entire scene or even story in a very short period of time. But with horrid description, poor character development, low style, etc. You might get to the end, but the end result is worthless. Solving long math problems forces you to take your time because there is no there is no other option.

If you develop this mentality and take it to your writing, the results are going to be much, much better.

So do your daily math even if you’d rather be reading. At the very least you’ll never have to embarrassingly admit you forgot how to do long division. Everything else is icing.

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Language, Writing

The Rise and Rise of English – And It’s Negative Impact on Global Literature

As a native speaker, the rise, spread, and entrenchment of English in the global order has been a boon. No matter where I go I know that I will be able to communicate with the vast majority of people with whom I would want to communicate. It has become a sign of education, class, and culture to speak English. Here in Paris wealthy families pay very well for nannies and governesses that speak English natively.

Every major literary work is translated into English, the majority of global best sellers are written in English, pop music and TV are dominated by English the world over. If life was a game of Civilization 4, the United States (not Britain) is well on it’s way to cultural victory.

It is making cross cultural communication easier and could indeed become THE global language. We see this is a good thing most of the time.

But is it?

In France I work at a technology venture capitalist firm. Everyone that works here must speak English. If one even wants a shot at being funded they must speak English well enough to present – ideally well enough to work in California if we send them there. Further, all public relations pieces, blog articles, etc. are written in English. Bad English.

Turns out that watching TV and reading blog articles doesn’t really prepare one to write a respectable essay. The European tech VC field is FULL of people that insist on writing and communicating in English. However they make no effort to actually ameliorate it. Often they reach a level where they can speak decently and then cease to improve.

This is a widespread problem, it is certainly not limited to the French business world. It’s most lethal poison seems to be reserved for the literary traditions of non-English speaking countries. This is a point brought up by Minae Mizumura in her recent book. According to her the literary tradition of Japan has been declining since 1945 – vocabulary is shrinking, words are getting simpler, old stylistic flourish have ceased exist entirely. She nears claiming that Japanese literary tradition is on it’s deathbed. And maybe it is. God rest Soeseki and Kawabata.

Not only is reading in English seen as somehow both cool AND intellectual at the same time, but even authors are now writing in English or in Japanese designed to be easy to translate. Obviously this has a huge negative effect on the actual quality of the literature. And it doesn’t stop there, the same problem is seen in European literature as well. Most writers now eye a translation to English and target English readerships.

The negative effect this has on their native literature is clear – but what about the effect on English? We, as native speakers, are inundated with the asinine and poorly written output of the entire world. And as the ESL proportion of the English speaking population increases, so too does the simplification of our language – all in order to reach people that only know it incompletely.

The government of the UK is removing e.g., etc, i.e., n.b., et al from usage because apparently it expects too much of an education from the legions of new ‘Britons’ crowding the island. English writers are being encouraged to use fewer idioms in order to accommodate people that don’t know them. Idioms are a core part of English! I expect simplified orthography to be the next step; we do live in an age where Oxford professors question the value of spelling at all.

What a time to be alive!

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English, Uncategorized, Writing

Reviving Obsolete Words and Antiquated Phrases

No I will not be filling this article with shoehorned obsolete words.

Nowadays there is a propensity to say things like ‘languages changes this is no different’ in the fact of the slow collapse of English learning in the lower and middle class in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France (I can’t speak to others but I suspect that the situation is similar).

Vocabularies are shrinking and comprehension of grammar is slowly eroding. Nowadays students need side by side translations when reading the classics of their own language. This is absurd. One of the best things about English, and by far the greatest argument for grammatical prescriptivism, is the fact that one can go back and read very, very old literature. An educated English reader can read the unadulterated works of most major writers that follow Chaucer. Perhaps a dictionary is needed but that is all.

Even Chaucer can be read with a few hours of instruction and an edition with ample and quality footnotes on the first stories. After this it is only on occasion that the reader needs to be taught something new.

Now you might be saying ‘Oh that can’t be right, so much has changed over the centuries.’ Well you’d be right and wrong. A lot has been added to the language since Chaucer’s time but comparatively little has been removed or changed into an unrecognizable form.

This is the real patrimony of English, by just being an educated speaker there is six centuries worth of literature that is available to you!

Despite this obvious advantage there are still those that declare ‘oh a living language changes get over it.’ Well kindly va te faire voutre if you believe that. These people are willing to cut their children off from their cultural patrimony, and for what reason?

We live under the real threat of becoming something like the modern day Greeks – a people with an incredible literature, but none of them can read it. Well, the few that bother to study Koine or Attic can but that is all. The Greeks can’t read Plato or Aristotle or even the Bible because they made a decision to normalize the degenerated peasant speak because it was ‘more democratic.’ This is a degeneration that the Japanese have been experiencing since 1945 and are trying to reverse.

The opposite is the Icelanders, they, through carefully managing their language have managed to avoid letting it simplify and wander as so many European languages have. Icelanders can read the Viking sagas (Old Norse) with greater ease than English students can read Shakespeare despite the extra centuries in between!

However, we can fight this trend. Word that are obsolete and ‘old fashioned’ can be refashioned into something new and exciting. Or at least reintroduced as a literary flourish. Anything we can do to begin reversing the trend of shrinking vocabularies (Grammar will require actual work by teachers. They could start by actually teaching grammar.).

So use old words, antiquated phrases, complicated (but hopefully not unwieldily) sentence structures – in the end our progeny might thank us.

Now if only we could get people to start reading again.

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Writing

Do nanowrimo, don’t write your book

If you haven’t heard of nanowrimo, check it out – however, given the nature of this blog, I’ll assume that you have heard of it.

Now go get started, you’re already a day late.

If you are anything like me, then you probably have about six or seven ideas lying around but one or two to which you are truly committed. These are the ones that, if you did them well, you think would be truly worth reading. Or, at least, might be picked up by someone other than family and friends!

Don’t start this book during nanowrimo. Especially if you have never written anything full length before, just don’t do it. First of all, once the path has been laid down it will be hard to travel any other. Even if you just treat it as a trial run, you will be fleshing out your story in a rush. This is never good and the main points you decide on will be hard to break, the characters will have already been developed. And worse, you’ll be attached to these characters and loathe to change them. The same goes for plot devices, mood, sequence, all these things will now have a certain form in your mind that will be hard to change.

Why’s that bad? They were formed in a rush and, likely, the planning didn’t go much further than a chapter ahead. It’s just a trainwreck waiting to happen and you’ll be really attached to that trainwreck.

So don’t write the novel that you have been planning forever. Rather, write a simpler story, one of the other ideas you’ve had kicking around. You’ll get the practice or writing daily, you’ll learn how to shape longer story arches, how to take your time on descriptions, etc. All of which will VASTLY improve your real novel. Don’t waste your favorite idea on a rush job – you will just end up disappointed. But if you pick a story arch that is simpler and to which you are less attached, it can be a wonderful learning experience!

So get cracking, you’re already behind!

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Writing

10 Reasons I Will NEVER Do a List Post

Writing that title was an exercise in masochism

Everything I hate about writing on the internet is summed up in that title. It implies that the article will be a glorified bullet list, one of the words is annoyingly capitalized… all it needs is a GIF and it could be world-class BuzzFeed material. However to fit into a site like that the article would have to be less than 300 words and have a GIF response for every single item on the list. Things I couldn’t bring myself to do even in the name of satire.

Perhaps you can tell already, but I really hate that kind of article and, unfortunately, it is where writing on the internet is headed. And since journalism becomes more digital and editors realize list article with GIFs get views… well you can check out The Washington Post for a sneak peek.

Dear readers, this kind of writing is the epitome of lazy. It’s sole merit is that it is easy to consume and, in a culture that is more or less founded on consumption, that is more than enough. List articles help the bottom line, they bring in easy views, they take less than a minute to read (so the reader can move on to another list article)… all these things are great if your sole goal is subscribers and likes. But it contributes to the slow decline of hobby writing and online journalism.

The internet has so much potential for helping new writers, young and old, find audiences and, perhaps, be discovered. But if these writers don’t hone their skill here, but instead fish for views, their writing ability will deteriorate. Treat your blog or website like a journal, but not as a ‘Tommy pulled my braid yesterday in class’ kind of journal but the kind of journal Robert Falcon Scott wrote – something you would be proud to show someone or, at least, not embarrassed (by the writing quality I mean, it being a journal the content could be embarrassing by definition!). All writing ought to be treated as a chance to improve or to entertain the reader. When you write and email let the goal be to make it memorable, let the reader think ‘this is how people used to write.’

In the past letters were often written with the kind of flair and attention one would dedicate to a public work (which is odd in a way as if you are writing a private letter you obviously care more about the recipient than the general public at large. Why would your letter be less polished than a public work?). Pliny the Younger is best known for his brilliant letters, Cicero’s letters have been studied for generation, a large part of the bible is made up of letters.

‘I thought this was about list posts, what do letters have to with this?’ you ask. My point is all writing is an example to show your skill and a challenge to make your topic interesting. It is also a chance to succeed as a writer. If you are writing list posts about cats and filling half the page with GIFs, then you have given up on actually writing and are now merely marketing in the hope of internet points.

Whether writing a blog post that 5 people will see, a letter to your mother, or a cover letter for a job application – take pride in your writing. Use it as an opportunity – the topic is mundane mais qui s’en fout? That just makes it more of a challenge and a greater chance for improvement.

Pride can be a weakness, but have enough that you can hold yourself above such shoddy writing and say ‘I know I can do better than that and I want to better than that.’

 

 

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Writing

Work Write Balance: Writing with a Heavy Workload

Sorry about the title, I couldn’t decide between that and “the write balance…” they both seems equally good-in-a-bad-way to me.

Having recently taken on a second job at a small Parisian startup, I find that I have increasingly little time for myself and my writing/reading. The natural solution would be to not have two jobs – I only need one so why should I torture myself? Well I happen to like them both and, thank God, both involve writing. One job is all writing and the other is around 1/3rd writing. But it I’m not always writing about things that I want to write about (however, I have discussed how this kind of writing is good for you anyway).

Regardless, this work now takes up the vast majority of my time. And that means all my studying, reading, exercising and writing are now crunched into a much smaller amount of time. Add to that that I am exhausted during this time off and you can see how my writing might drop off in both quality and quantity. The only way around this is extremely effective time management. I am blessed insofar as part of my job involves writing – this is not the case for every aspiring writer. However despite this cushioning, I have found myself cutting things out of my life that I used to think were necessary. Things like reddit and other social news platforms. Platforms that can draw one into endless and wearisome debates about Trump and Clinton (the irony being the interlocutor often ends up not even being American!).

It’s not just about giving up time wasting activities; if careful, one can continue to add activities so long as he holds to a routine. My workouts  just had to move forward and had to be much more anal about punctuality. I’ve had to be more anal about everything, really. And this is the key. Having a big anchor like a job compress the rest of your time can, in my opinion, cause you to get more done in the other spheres of your life. Now that   structure is required, you structure everything.

So if you start to structure your life this way, writing won’t be a problem. You have to make time for it by cutting out the things that you know you don’t need to be doing (and oftentimes they are things that you don’t want to be doing, you are just doing them out of habit and that is all). Do you really want to be on pinterest? Or do you want to be writing? Would you rather be a great pinterester or a great writer?

Another thing that I have been doing is being harder on myself insofar as producing results. Work is a results driven environment, I have to turn in to turn in results at specific times and the results have to be good.

And that is the theme here, the more of your life that you treat as work, the more you will get done outside of work.

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Writing

The Many, Many, Many Benefits of Journaling

For the sake of journalistic (or blogger, whatever) integrity I have to be honest: I am horrible at keeping journals. It is a next to impossible task for me to keep writing in one for more than a month. I get sick or go on vacation and habit dies a quick death. But when I do keep journals I feel like I realize the value as I am writing it. I get to run through my day, critique my actions, and practice my writing. And, of course, a lot of things that seem like a big deal when they are happening seem pathetically unimportant seven hours later when I am writing them down.

But what is  truly wonderful is the fact that you get to watch your writing style develop over the days, months, and years (you also get to see your handwriting get progressively better until high school and then fall off, at least in my case). You can see where you started and just how far you have come, which is wonderful when you are having doubts about your ability as a writer or whether or not you have improved. Doubts that everyone has in the path to becoming a writer… Actually, I’d say that no matter what art you choose, the further you get the slower you advance. And considering the difference between good and great is, in many cases, quite thin – you have to just keep working at it!

But if you don’t see your improvement it is too easy to get frustrated and fall into a rut. Once there you’ll have to climb out. And the easiest way to do this is to see just how far you have come.

But this is only one benefit the journaling has to the aspiring author – there are two others that I want to cover. The first is that it is a bottomless source of inspiration, especially if you develop some kind of tagging system (either on the computer or marking the top of the journal page). A short sentence at the top to give a sneak peek of the contents when browsing. You life is full of the stuff about which whole novels are written; the difference between you and a great writer is practice. A practiced eye insofar as finding the stories in the mundane, and a practiced style. Without both your writing can only be so good.

Lastly, it is a wonderful drug. Diving into your childhood, seeing how you felt and remembering things long forgotten, this is all priceless. And nostalgia is a feeling that sharpens others – a childhood memory is usually a thing of extremes extreme happiness, contentment, pain, wonder – and it is these kind of sharpened emotions that make the best materials for writing.

So start journaling, your future self will thank you.

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