The Mathematics of Writing

By Maria Clarice Chua

I always get a strange look whenever I tell someone that I am an Actuarial Science major who hopes to write her own novel one day. It appears to be a common perception that math and writing are two discrete topics; in fact, a lot of my fellow math majors express to me that one of the reasons they entered the field in the first place was to avoid writing altogether! But are math and writing really all that different? Or is there something inherently shared between the two?

I’d like to believe there is. My passion for both math and writing stems from my interest in the analytical and the logical. What drew me to math versus history or biology was the fact that success in the subject required more than simple memorization. Instead, math is based on comprehension of basic building blocks, concepts, and tools (numbers, theoretical models, algebra, etc.). The challenge lies in not the understanding of these basics, but in their application – what is the best way to utilize these ideas in order to effectively solve the problem that’s currently in front of me? In this way, math emphasizes a logical, structured thinking process.

Here’s the part where I deliver the punchline – so does writing. Although the “building blocks” may be different, consisting of parts of speech, thesis statements, paragraphs, and sentences, the overall idea remains the same. Truly effective writing requires one to think about the best way to utilize these tools in order to convey a message or a thought. And just like math, there is more than one way to solve a problem, just as there is more than one way to communicate an argument or an idea. However, the strongest commonality between the two subjects lies the deeply analytical, problem-solving aspect that writing and math share. This is best exemplified by in a very important question that both writers and mathematicians often ask themselves when faced with a particular question: what is the best or most efficient way to tackle the problem at hand?

Although the answer to this question varies with every situation, it is one inquiry that I often find myself making in both my roles as an actuarial student and as a writing tutor. For example, throughout my analyst internship this past summer at Travelers Insurance, I often found myself asking whether there were more efficient methods for performing a task or calculation. If so, it was time to fish within my tool box of math tricks to logically construct a new solution. On the writing side, many of my tutoring sessions often deal with issues of whether or not the writer is effectively conveying his/her main ideas. If the writer is not, what better question to follow up with than to ask, “What things do you think you can do to this sentence/paragraph/phrase/word to better say what you mean to say?” These personal examples illustrate my use of the aforementioned question about finding the best approach to solving a problem. The necessity of finding that best approach highlights how math and writing both involve logically thinking about the tools and techniques you have and how to best apply them to answer a specific question. And although a math problem really has only one “right answer,” while writing assignments can be answered with a variety of solutions, the analytics and the importance of proving the chosen solution with sound concepts, examples and other tools are true of both.

So the next time you mathy or logic-oriented business majors receive a tough paper assignment, try thinking about it like a math problem. You never know; with a little bit of word algebra, you could just find yourself solving for that solution!

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About BentleyWritingCenter

This is the official blog of the Bentley University Writing Center staff.
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