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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Writing

Habits, Routine, and Writing

There is only one way to succeed as a writer and that is to write. ‘No shit’ you say, but do you really have a scheduled routine of writing? Not many do. In my experience writers write either to meet a deadline or when they feel inspired (with potentially very long period filling the chasms between periods of inspired writing). Writing is a skill, and like any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. It seems like with writing and art many feel as if you can’t improve unless you are working at the height of inspiration or have a particularly excellent idea.

This is idiotic. What would you say to a body builder who said he only worked out when he really felt like it? He’d never improve, or at least he’d only improve very slowly. If he worked out each day despite how he was feeling, he’d improve much quicker. And, better, when he did feel really inspired he’d probably be lifting a lot more than he would have otherwise because he had been slowly improving during the time between fits of inspiration.

It is the same with writing. If you write a lot and write often, you will have more experience and a better developed skillset for when you really want to write. That is, your writing will be much better during those inspired peaks! This becomes a feedback loop: bored but write anyway, inspired and write better than normal, excited about ability, keep writing, etc. it becomes a positive feedback loop of improvement and enjoyment.

So it is important to create habits that lead to this kind of experience. You can start now: no matter how much work you have or how tired you are, write one journal entry per day. Or even write one blog article per day. Even if they are short and no one reads them, you will still be improving and this is what matters! I mean just this week I wrote two articles that no one read but it is important in the development of the habit and the skill!

Journaling itself has a host of benefits outside of skill development that I might write about later. But right now, get to work! Go write a poem, a review, a blog article, a journal entry!

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Literature, Writing

Marginalia: Reading as a Conversation

For the first time in a long time I sat down to read without writing in the book. I had walked all the way to a small park in the center of Paris (Jardin Nelson Mandela, just west of Les Halles), sat down on a concrete bench and took out my poorly taken care of copy of Paradise Lost. Usually there are large groups of Algerians listening to indecipherable French rap music through their phones, but no music today! It should have been so nice…

I had forgotten my pen.

With nothing to write with, I had no choice but to carry on, I had walked all the way there after all. It was terrible, and it totally reassured me of the value of marginalia. Especially with a long, complicated book like Paradise Lost, writing in the margins as you read really helps you keep track of what’s going on, who is talking, etc. I also like to make notes of obvious references to other literature that Milton put in his poem (usually Latin and Greek works). Further, it helps with pacing, it is very hard to skim if you are busy underlining, circling words, and writing short reactions.

Reading ought to be a conversation. Writing in the margins keeps you more engaged, and now that you can’t unconsciously skim, you retainĀ much more. Beyond retention, this process also adds a very personal touch to your book. It makes it much more entertaining to return to five or ten years later. An should you want to find a quote that you really liked 400 pages ago, you probably marked it the first time you saw it and can quickly find it by flipping through the pages.

Lastly, when you read a really long novel with an enormous cast (Russians…) it can make it way easier to follow. When a long conversation started between major characters, I’d write right up front which Nikolay this is; how he is related to Sofia, which house they are at, etc. After doing this for a few hundred pages you develop an extremely intimate understanding of the family trees and begin to glimpse complicated family politics. You might be surprised how many things were slipping beneath your notice.

Give it a try, it might seem tedious at first, but it is a habit worth developing.

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Computers, English, Writing

Handwriting and Touchtyping

Having good handwriting has long been one of the hallmarks of a well educated and well bred individual. And for good reason, it is a wonderful proxy for judging attentiveness – if one can’t be bothered to write well and legibly what else can’t he be bothered to do? Indeed, handwriting is an art in itself, much like framing is an art as much as painting, and an attractive, well made frame is going to add to the view experience. Attractive handwriting is a pleasure to read and facilitates reading in self in ways beyond just legibility, if one enjoys merely looking at writing he is far more likely to actually read it.

Bad handwriting is not just the chicken-scratch that your grammar school teachers hated so much (ans probably acquiesced to after a few weeks), no it is also overly wrought handwriting. This famous example is an excellent compromise between legibility and decoration – the goal is unique legibility.

This is unfortunately a skill that has become entirely disregarded especially as people increasing type everything that they used to write by hand. But even today when one looks at a friends writing, they will almost always make a comment if it is above our very low par. This new, democratic skill, typing, has replaced handwriting in both teaching and usage. However, like handwriting, very few bother to develop the skill. The skill to which I am referring is touchtyping and when someone can actually do it properly (a rare sight indeed), it is usually very impressive.

That is impressive, at that kind of speed there is no barrier to thought, the words are getting down onto the paper significantly faster than he could write them by hand. This is the main benefit of touch typing: speed.

However, it is usually taught in grammar or elementary school as a thirty minute class that goes on for half the year at most. At this point children have already begun using keyboards, in fact, they have probably been using them for quite a long time. Those habits are already in place and they are NOT easy to undo. As such, considering almost everyone finds touchtyping to be difficult at first, most people quit and never learn to type properly. Even when they grow up and have to type all day at their jobs, hardly anyone puts in the effort.

Until my hand was forced by switching to a new keyboard format, I steadfastly refused to go through the pain of having to learn to touchtype… Now that I have to relearn to type anyway I figured I may as well learn to type correctly. And it has been difficult but extraordinarily rewarding – everyone ought to relearn to type properly (or, better yet, switch to the Dvorak keyboard). There are plenty of good sites out there for relearning to type. So get to it and, while your at it, do something about that handwriting.

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