Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writing by the Numbers

The results on my college entrance exams made it perfectly clear -- I am not a math-oriented person. The number was OK, but out of all the categories, I scored lowest in math.

I wasn't worried. I planned on being a journalist, and I was sure math wouldn't be involved.

Not long after I began taking journalism courses, I realized how wrong I was. At times, I felt like everything I was doing involved math. I would have to write an 8-inch story, or lay out a front page leaving a 3x4 hole for a photo. I needed to scan in an original photo and figure out the percentage I needed to convert it in order to have it fit the opening. This was before desktop publishing was widely used, and I learned to do layout using blue-lined paper and lots of hot wax.

Although my journalism degree required it, I didn't plan on doing a lot of layout in my career. I was a writer. I wanted to write stories.

I landed my first journalism job before I graduated with my journalism degree. I was working part-time at a community newspaper, and my number one responsibility was covering the county government. I attended the first meeting, and I took notes as the board members discussed budgets, millage (tax) proposals and contracts. Almost everything on the agenda involved numbers, which meant I would be doing math.

As the journalist, it was my responsibility to take all of those numbers and explain them in a way that made sense to my readers. If the county board approves a millage increase of .25 mills, how much should the average taxpayer expect to pay? The board members didn't always provide the answer. If the sheriff gets a 10 percent raise, and the sheriff's department budget isn't increased, how many hours of deputy patrols will be lost?

It was math. Lots and lots of math.

I'm not the only writer who found out math was an integral part of writing for a living. I distinctly remember when my good friend Shelley Haggert began working as the editor of Windsor Parent magazine. It was layout day, and she was shocked to learn layout involved math. She'd been tricked! Who knew math was involved in writing, she wailed.

Even for writers who are not involved in layout or journalism, math is still an integral part of the writing career. You have to invoice clients and write-off expenses and figure out how much you need to sell in order to pay your monthly bills.

Just this week, a number of members of The Writing Mother were admitting how they hate math. But you heard it hear first -- math is entwined in writing more than most English majors are willing to admit. Otherwise that ivory tower room where you spend your days writing won't have any heat and lights.

Math, I've learned, is much easier to accept when it involves adding up the invoices due to you.


Carolyn Erickson said...

You're right on, Linda. Math is a whole lot easier for me when it's in the context of specific ways I need to use it.

Who am I kidding? It's never easy for me. But I've learned to do it anyway. :)

Serenity Now! said...

So true Linda!

I think maybe there's a love/hate relationship going on there. I hate it, and I love to hate it.