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  • Writer's pictureDylan Parry

How maths made me a better writer

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

Maths is about numbers, English is about words. They’re two worlds apart.

Or are they?

For what I imagine are administrative reasons, our education system has long ghettoised learning into clearly demarcated camps, with guard towers enforcing the borders. As far as subject content goes, that may be fine. But the ways of thinking – the cognitive disciplines – that underpin each subject have more in common than we may think.

Back to the maths for a moment. (And bear with me here – if you didn’t 100% get on with maths at school, then this post is 90% for you.) 

For a start, only part of this grand old subject concerns numbers. What it’s really about is patterns and structure. And where would language be without patterns and structure?

The common ground is actually such that you can do a combined degree in linguistics and maths. Computational linguists meanwhile busy themselves programming computers (using – you guessed it – maths) to generate language the way humans do. 

As a social science, linguistics is all about human behaviour. It is thus suitably full of inconsistencies that fascinate or infuriate, depending on whether you’re the kind of person who arranges their socks neatly in the drawer by colour, in strict adherence to the spectrum.

Yet patterns and structures do largely prevail in language.

Let’s look at just a few ways mathematical thinking can aid better writing…

1. Clarity

When writing longer copy for things like brochures or websites, much of the writer’s task is to rationalise and economise information into lithe, labour-saving forms. In doing this, the mathematical logic of sets/subsets, addition, subtraction and more come frequently into play. 

Really it’s about problem solving: you’re juggling the elements of what you want to say, and presenting them with maximum clarity (other things too, of course, but we’ll come to that later).

For example, 'more teachers, more students, more schools’ can be more concisely written as 'more teachers, students and schools’, since ‘more’ is a factor common to each of the nouns that follow. That’s not so different to the mental agility you need to see that 2ab + 4ac - 8a can be somewhat more simply expressed as 2a(b + 2c - 4).

Of course, we’re not talking about particularly advanced writing chops here. These are the basics. But when you’re working at pace (and when are we ever not?) it helps if you can catch all these opportunities at the first time of asking.

You may have come across coders talking about ‘beautiful code’. Probably you mumbled something about leaving the iron on and made a panicked arc for the door. But if you did hang around, perhaps in paralysed terror, then you may have heard them talking about clarity, efficiency and elegance. Their language is of course maths, but it’s much the same with English. 

2. Building a watertight argument

In copywriting, you frequently need to build a logical argument. Your reader starts at point A, and you try to guide them through B, C and D, to point E, where they are hopefully persuaded of the glorious agreeability of your offer. But they won’t go straight from A to E – the steps in between matter.

Constructing the argument that gets them there is similar to constructing a mathematical proof. As with a proof, the author needs to build a trail of crumbs. And do this they must know the difference between a sound logical step and a questionable leap of faith. In other words, the crumbs need to be somewhat close together.

A rational reader probably won’t accept that buying your project management software will mean they can see out their days on a white sandy beach, supping on pina coladas. At least not in a single leap of logic. But they may accept that the user-friendly interface will let their team communicate and share documents easily, on any device. Thus releasing them from the shackles of the office. From there the pina colada is just a lazy-ass reach away. 

3. Creativity

So, mathematical thinking can help you write more clearly, and make tighter, more convincing arguments. But surely it can’t help with creative, conceptual writing?

This more artful side of the copywriter’s job is about drawing interesting, unexpected connections between things. We like to think these ideas spill forth from the writer’s wildly spontaneous, untameable mind, in the way the Casa Battlo perhaps spilled from Gaudi's.

But another view is that these connections already exist in the ether, and the writer's task is simply to highlight them with a fat yellow marker pen. That might go some way to explaining why good creative ideas immediately feel so natural. So irrefutable.

Well guess what? This uncovering of existing connections is exactly what mathematicians do. They use imagination and pattern-recognition to join the dots between concepts, often ones that were previously thought to be entirely unrelated. 

The sheer amount of important, unexpected discoveries that were made by the mathematicians who – for 300 years – attempted to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem is astounding. Incidentally, these are the subject of a wonderful book by Simon Singh.

You also have to grasp logic before you can mess with it. Like the logic of sets, used to provocative effect here:

And rhetoric – that trusted toolbox of persuasion – often uses repeating structures. In this case, what’s known as parallelism:

The ad works because the repeating form of ‘eye, try, buy’ suggests an underlying, inherent logic. It’s like the verbal equivalent of 2, 4, 8.

The comedy of the absurd has its roots in logic, too. To show what it is absurd, incongruous, preposterous, you first have to understand what is logical, then draw juxtapositions. This might be why so many of the writers on The Simpsons have advanced degrees in maths. 

As Matt Selman, a non-mathematician writer on The Simpsons, says: "the mathematical mind lends itself best to writing very silly jokes, because logic is at the heart of mathematics. The more you think about logic, the more you have fun twisting it and morphing it. I think the logical mind finds great humour in illogic.

So, next time you’re looking for a writer, maybe consider one with a mathematical bent. Much like an English degree, it's not mandatory to the job, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Dylan Parry is a freelance copywriter based in London. He doesn’t have a degree in maths or English (it's in economics).

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