Yesterday, we hosted our #ConnectChat, featuring Laura Laing, author of Math for Grownups. During the chat, Laing discussed why writers fear math as well as the various ways they can overcome this fear. Laing also explained the reason writers need math and how they can use it in their writing.
Not to worry if you weren’t able to make yesterday’s chat, here is a recap:
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I'm a writer with a degree in math. Is that weird or what? I started out as a math teacher, but after a long journey, I came to writing. These days, I write a lot about math. I call myself a math evangelist -- I want folks to know why they need math and that it's not so hard. (Really!)
Why do you think math is important when it comes to writing?
Math matters because numbers are a part of our everyday lives. Stats can show when something is true (or false), important in some writing. Also, some people prefer numbers over just words. We want to reach all readers, not just the verbal ones. Math is also about logic, which is a really big deal in good writing. Illogical non-fiction can be really bad writing. Math can offer great analysis and good evidence, which supports a thesis.
Why is math important to freelancers?
Freelancers have a business to run -- math helps us budget, set goals and even manage time. Not to mention set project rates, etc. When freelancers don't use math well in their business management, they lose money. Period.
Do you think writers are afraid of math?
Yes! I do think many writers are afraid of math. They may think they can be writers or math geeks but not both. Writers often tell me that they can't be good at math, which I think is wrong. Writers probably don't need calculus, but some basic math is really, really important -- percents, a little stats, estimations.
How can writers overcome their fear of math?
To overcome a fear of math, think about where you use math easily -- cooking, sewing, etc. What about this math is easy for you? Ask someone you trust for some help, if things get tough. You can also Google how to do something and find a good resource.
Just like with any anxiety or fear, approaching it again and again and celebrating success goes a long way. Be positive. Studies show that kids with math anxiety feel better if they slow down and think a bit before taking a test or doing homework. Also, there is no "math gene." Very few people are intellectually unable to do math at all. There are many different ways to approach math, find the way that works for you. There's no teacher looking over your shoulder.
What are some good examples of math used in writing?
Sometimes writers need to do math as part of the reporting -- crunch the numbers for the reader. A great example is to restate a really large number in a way that makes more sense for readers. For example: Big number here: Cellist Performs at 14,259 Feet on Colorado Summit. But doesn’t 14,259 feet = 951-story building (if story equals 15 feet tall) illustrate the height better right? Or you can write, “About 950 T-rexes stacked on top of each other!” Math can make writing fun too.
Also, it's never just about the numbers. It's about the story. Visualization can help too. But I think the hardest part is figuring out which numbers are telling the unbiased story
In addition, math knowledge allows journalists to conceive and complete "big data" stories. Big data is a big deal. We're going to need lots of math to unpack and deal with all of those numbers.
How else should writers present the numbers they find in their writing?
It's important to know the reader and stick with the right tone. Scientists just want the numbers (probably). But if you think your readers aren't mathematicians, break things down. If you don't understand the math, your reader won't. Be sure that the numbers used actually represent the story being told. Percents are often better than hard numbers.
It also helps to put obscure figures/data into perspective for readers with comparisons and descriptions that help visualize. This can tell much more of the story than just one number.
Do you think infographics are an effective way to present data/numbers?
Infographics are great! But the source of the numbers matters a lot.
If a writer needs to find reliable statistics to support their writing, where do you recommend they search?
First off, stats is a weird, weird branch of math in some ways. It's easy to misrepresent information with bad stats. So the sources really do matter. I like most government agencies -- Census, CDC, NIH, COB, etc. Even some advocacy groups are good. Pew is great.
Here is my advice: 1) Trust your gut. If the numbers don't seem right, dig deeper. 2) In a poll, ask for the questions. Beware of leading or poorly worded questions in polls. 3) Get the original study and read it. 4) Lastly, call up a statistician at a local university for assistance. They're usually very happy to help.
For reliable stats you can also look to research published by organizations that are authorities in that industry. However, be careful, because some organizations slant the data for their own purposes. For example, I wouldn't trust data about the safety of fracking from a natural gas company.
What other things should a writer be wary of when looking for data online?
Always check who paid for the research. If they won't tell you, don't trust the data. And if they won't give you the original research data or the questions asked, don't trust it. Research should be transparent. If there are secrets, I wouldn't trust the data. You should know who paid for the research, what the questions were, info about the sample, etc.
Also, make sure the source is presenting the full picture, not just a very compact version for online readers. Sometimes scientists/researchers think they're doing us a favor, summarizing too much.
Another mistake I see journalists making with data is using stats that are several years old and possibly not relevant anymore. Unless, of course, the older stats are compared to recent stats to give context. Comparative stats should come from the same source. Always look for the most recent data. But remember research takes a long time. Most recent data may be two or three years old.
You should always check data found online with multiple sources. You can't believe data just because it's online, because anyone can post information. Triangulate the data. But sometimes new research refutes old data for good reason.
Once the writer finds a reliable source, can they trust the data to be accurate or do they need to verify with another source?
I think that depends. It's always a good idea to check the data. Discrepancies can be part of the story. Also it's really important not to draw conclusions from stats. Correlation does not equal causation. All data should be attributed, too. Don't just throw in a number -- where did it come from? If it's the first time data has been reported/discovered, there's no way to confirm. But make sure to attribute.
What should a writer be aware of if they are conducting their own poll?
Reliable polls are much harder to conduct than you might think. Randomness and sample size are critical. If you can't get a random sample, just know that the poll results will not be representative of the entire population. For example, website polls (on news sites) are rarely reliable at all. Google "random sample" to get an explanation. (It is hard to explain on Twitter.) Here's a blog post of mine about random sampling: bit.ly/1cJvX5Y
What is your opinion on using math to help teach writing, such as brain teasers before freewriting, critical thinking, etc.?
I would suggest asking the students to create a flow chart of their piece -- look for the logic. Consider writing like a proof. Also, I love those brain teaser questions.
You wrote the book Math for Grownups, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Math for Grownups is a light-hearted look at how grownups use math. It's full of funny, useful examples. Not scary! Each chapter of Math for Grownups focuses on one area -- shopping, gardening, cooking, traveling, budgeting, fitness, etc.
What differentiates your book from other how-to math books?
Math for Grownups is meant to be for those who don't like math. It's more narrative and less "academic." No practice problems!
Where can we purchase your book?
You can get it on Amazon or at your local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore. It's in the math/science section. I also have an eBook coming out in the fall: Math for Writers Look for it at www.mathforgrownups.com
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