A Mathematical Approach to Writing

With due acknowledgement to Professor DJ Higham

University of Strathclyde

For many years I have used mathematics as a hobby for intellectual stimulation and as something I was not very good at while in school, I find it a challenge. It came as something of a surprise that I found what has become for me the simplest of tip sheets for writing. Professor Higham’s list of tips is also proof that mathematicians have a sense of humour and are not square..

The full list of tips is available by clicking on the link above, but some of them are so good they deserve a more detailed consideration.

“1. Every sentence should make sense in isolation. Like that one.”

This seems blindingly obvious; however, you will find that writers do not follow this simple rule. I must confess I am one of them, as my thoughts race along faster than my typing speed and the result becomes “run on sentences”. These are overly long sentences that do not have a proper structure and do not contribute to making my point. If you’re not sure about a sentence that you have written, my basic rule is to split it into two sentences and see how that reads.

“6. A writer needs three qualities: creativity, originality, clarity and a good short term memory”

I think this should say “a good writer” as you can still generate a good income without possessing any of the three qualities, but they certainly do help. You cannot be a writer without a good short term memory as you need to stay on topic with your work. Sticking to topic for someone like me is something I have to consciously discipline myself with. I have a tendency to wander and drift off on a tangent, particularly if the topic is something I find personally interesting. Unlike Julius Caesar, who had a slave whisper in his ear repeatedly “You are not a God you are only human.” when returning to Rome in triumph, you also have to develop your own slave to remind you of what you are writing on, and to watch for your common failings.

“12. Avoid ugly abr’v’ns”

Using abbreviations is something to avoid for two very simple reasons. Firstly, your audience may not know what they stand for, and remember your audience will be an international one if you are writing content for the web. The second reason to avoid abbreviations is a monetary one, as you’re paid for word totals. Why use an abbreviation when three words will do?

“13. Spell checkers are not perfect; they can kiss my errs”

In my previous post on The Fear of Rejection, I highlighted how I lost a bid a few days ago due to a copywriting error, a very basic one. Spell checkers are not perfect and you must check your work yourself conscientiously and with as much care as you took to initially write the piece. Rely on a spell checker and you can look forward to a lot more rejection emails from potential clients.

“21. State your opinions forcefully – this is perhaps the key to successful writing.”

People place a lot of weight in what they read, just think of the phrase “It’s in the newspapers so it must be true” and you get my point. When you are writing on a topic, make your opinion clear and unequivocal, and your readership will be far more inclined to be carried by your piece. I am a good writer and you will succeed if you follow my advice.

If you’re still reading I’ve made my point.

“31. Injecting enthusiasm probably won’t do any harm.”

Darn’ tooting right!, if you’re writing for a North American audience, where you can overdo the enthusiasm without any real risk of harm to your reputation. Enthusiasm is also something you’ll need when producing sales copy no matter where the target audience are actually located.

“41. Less is more. This means that a short cryptic statement is often preferable to an accurate, but drawn out, explanation that lacks punch and loses the reader.”

You’ll find this to be so very, very true.

Less is more applies especially to the title of your piece and to the opening statements. The title is the eye-catcher and the first sentences are what will hook a reader to get into the body of your piece where the real message lies.

An example from my past is where I had to come up with a title for a basketball fitness training programme that would increase a players ability to jump higher. Initially I was given “Jump higher and score more points with our exclusive basketball training program complete with a 90 day money back guarantee” but what I ended up with was “Add 10 inches to your vertical jump height.” A test was run on which title should be used and the shorter title came back with ten times the number of web page hits than the lengthier title.

There are over a hundred tips, many of them directly relevant to non-mathematicians looking to make an income by writing. My thanks are due to Professor Higham.

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