Math: It’s Not Just for Science Writers

Math is not just for science writers

Yeah, yeah. I get it. You became a writer because you didn’t want to do math. You got into editing a general interest magazine, because you wouldn’t be required to remember the difference between mean and median. Or you decided to write novels, thanks to a horrific experience in your Math for English Majors class.

Only science writers need math, right?

So yeah, science writers are most likely going to geek out on statistical analysis or a super-cool line graph. But lots of us writers need math to help us rise to the tops of our fields. It’s no secret that I believe this. I wrote a book about it. 

In fact, for some writers — like business or health reporters — math is a pretty important skill. But even fiction writers can use a dose of math now and then. Let me break it down for you.

Business Writers

If your beat is businesses, you are probably pretty comfortable with the math that companies use to assess their financial health. This means understanding a little bit about percentages and statistical analysis. You know how to read an annual report, including the charts and graphs that illustrate what the company is trying to say.

At the same time, you probably have a healthy dose of skepticism, You know that statistics can be misleading. To really analyze a company’s status, you need to crunch the numbers yourself. Or at least question where they came from.

Health Writers

It seems that most health stories in magazines and newspapers hinge on a recent study or report. It’s clear when the writer and editor get the math behind that research — and when they don’t. If you’re a health writer, you know how to use those numbers so that your readers are not misled.

This means understanding something about sample size, or when a study’s sample is too small or just right. You also know to ask for the study itself, instead of depending only on the summary or (worse) a press release written by a PR person who doesn’t have a background in that field.

Book Authors

Whether you ghostwrite or pen books using your own name, a little bit of math can go a long way to being sure that you’re on the road to an actual book and making a little money. Even fiction writers can use math in this way.

You use formulas in a spreadsheet to help count down your words and stay on deadline. You use statistical analysis to demonstrate to a potential publisher or agent that people want to read your book. Your platform is not only based on the number of Twitter followers you have, but also how well your fans engage with you on social media.

So even if you were promised no math in your chosen career as a writer, a little bit of math can help. Thankfully, you won’t need a math degree or even a college statistics refresher to master these computations. Clearly you’re smart enough. You’re a writer!

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Need to brush up on your math skills? Check out my book, Math for Writers: Tell a Better Story, Get Published and Make More Money. And be on the lookout for my upcoming online statistics course for writers and journalists. In the meantime, if you have any questions, ask them in the comments section!

 

Math at Work Monday: Audrey the Birth Doula

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As a woman, I know there is nothing more life-changing than giving birth to a child. It’s a time when you most need the support of people around you. You need encouragement. I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Kalman for this week’s Math at Work Monday. She’s been a birth doula for twelve years so she’s been the support for countless women (and watched a lot of lives enter the world!). What does this have to do with math?  Let’s find out!

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I support women who are giving birth and their families as a birth doula. Birth doulas are non-medical support people, hired by families, who provide informational, emotional, and physical support before and during birth. I meet with families before their babies are born to find out what they’re hoping for; I help ease anxieties and point them to resources. Once a woman goes into labor—or thinks she’s in labor—she contacts me. I then join her at her home or at the hospital and stay with her and her partner until a couple hours after the baby comes. That could be a few hours… or a few days. I do everything from reassuring her (and the dad!) that everything is fine to massaging her back to talking her through a particularly painful or challenging moment. I often describe my role as a “professional sister.” I have up-to-date training and come without the “baggage” of a family member, but I bring the same kind of caring and compassion you might expect from a close relative.

When do you use basic math in your job?

Because I’m self-employed, math is part of the equation (pardon the pun) that helps me figure out how to set my rates and how many clients I need to work with to meet my income goals. For example, when recently deciding whether to raise rates, I researched living wages in my area. I then calculated how many births I would need to attend to make a living wage, looked at fees charged by doulas just starting out, and used a multiplier developed by another doula to account for my years of experience. Then there’s all the lovely arithmetic that goes into tax calculations, though I use a tax calculation program for that.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I don’t know where I’d be without Excel spreadsheets. Since I also serve as the administrator for a small group of doulas (we back each other up), I’m responsible for maintaining a spreadsheet to track all of our clients and tallying up who owes what to whom at the end of each quarter. We serve about fifty couples each year so this can get complicated. Using a spreadsheet is the only way to keep track of everything—not only who owes what but also other information like due dates.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I absolutely think it helps me do my job better. The hands-on work of being a doula is very intuitive, but the rest is like running any other business. I believe it’s important to be professional which includes creating contracts and invoices for which basic math is certainly required.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I’ve always felt comfortable with math. (My mother was a college professor who taught physics and mathematics.) The math I use now feels somewhat pedestrian—it’s really just glorified arithmetic. What’s interesting to me is using problem-solving concepts to help me figure out big-picture questions (as with the rate-setting example I gave above).

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I have always really enjoyed math. I had an unusual education in that I attended an early college now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock so I took only algebra in high school. I went on to do some interesting math in college, including systems dynamics, but I didn’t pursue higher level math since I was a creative writing major. I did take statistics for my graduate degree in journalism. I think all citizens should be required to take basic statistics!

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

I definitely picked up my spreadsheet skills post-school since nobody was using personal computers when I went to college, but the big-picture thinking and problem-solving skills which I consider to be part of math were definitely something I honed in school and have used ever since.

Anything else you want to mention?

I want to mention another kind of “math” that is related to birth. I think of it as “intuitive math.” It’s what allows me to “feel” whether a woman’s contractions are getting closer together and longer (a sign that labor is progressing). It also allows me to help women through contractions by counting their breaths. Perhaps this doesn’t have much to do with what we typically think of as math, but part of math is all about patterns and cycles—and those are definitely relevant to the process of giving birth.

Intuitive math.  Pretty cool!  I’ve never even thought about that. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did. If you have any questions for Audrey, please let me know.

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Math is Not a Competition (Video)

Oh, the math competitions! From speed math to scrambling to get the correct answer, competing with math can be a very bad idea. In this video, I talk about when competition and math are a bad mix. Take a look!

Have you subbed to my YouTube channel: mathforgrownups? There are lots more videos there.  Also, I hope you’ll share this video on Twitter, using #slowmath and post it on your Facebook page. Share the Math for Grownups love!

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Ask your questions or share your feedback in the comments section. Were you surprised by anything in the video? What do you think about math being a competition? Tell us!

Math at the Movies

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(Photo courtesy of NASA Headquarters)

I love the movies. If I could, I would watch one every single day. I’m also a bit of a movie snob. I like films that surprise me or make me think. And while I don’t seek out movies that feature math, some of the best movies out there do. Here are a few of them.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Goodwill Hunting won the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay. Damon plays Will Hunting, an MIT janitor and math prodigy. Psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) finally breaks through Hunting’s defenses, helping him to leave his past behind.

Pi (1998)

If you’re looking for something surreal, Pi is it. Filmed in moody black and white, the movie follows mathematical genius, Max (Sean Gullette) , as he searches for patterns in mathematics. At the same time, he’s being pursued by two groups who want his results: a powerful Wall Street firm and a Hasidic cabalistic sect.

 A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Based on the true story of Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, A Beautiful Mind won four Oscars, including Best Picture. Nash (Russell Crowe) is a brilliant mathematician, who has troubling relationships with a former college roommate, a young girl and a Department of Defense agent.

Proof (2005)

As her successful mathematician father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins) descends into madness, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) begins to question her own sanity and mathematical abilities. Proof is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Auburn.

Moneyball (2011)

The ultimate answer to the question, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” Moneyball  tells the true story of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s beleaguered manager, played by Brad Pitt. Given a tiny budget for salaries, Beane games the recruiting system, using a sophisticated statistical analysis program. His methods ultimately change the way all baseball teams build their rosters. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the brains behind the plan.

 The Imitation Game (2014)

Based on the life of one of them most fascinating mathematicians in history, The Imitation Game is the most recent math-centric films to hit theaters. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the great mind who broke the Nazi’s enigma code, ultimately shortening the war by several years and saving thousands of lives.

With a list like this, you might think that Hollywood is has a great relationship with math. Never fear, this mashup tells the truth. Like much of the rest of society, the movies and television hate or are scared of math. Take a look.

What is your favorite movie or television program about math? What do you think of the movies I’ve listed? Post your comments below!

Math at Work Monday: Susan Weiner the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

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One of the things that excites me the most is seeing someone make a living out of their passion.  I had the privilege of interviewing Susan Weiner today.  She has been in her profession for more than 20 years and is living her passion.  She’s a freelance financial writer and author of Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.  She blogs at InvestmentWriting.com/blog. I highly recommend that you check out her work. First, let her tell us a little bit more about what she does and how it involves math.

Can you explain what you do for a living? (Be specific!)

I write and edit white papers and investment commentary for financial firms. You know how some people have great ideas but lack the time or skill to put them into writing? I interview them—and use their data—to put their ideas into persuasive writing. Some of their data include numbers generated using math.

When do you use basic math in your job? 

I use math when I write investment portfolio performance commentary. If you own a mutual fund, you receive semiannual reports about your fund’s performance. Some of that commentary is based on data called attribution analysis. It identifies which investments contributed to positive returns and which investments detracted. This data is reported in percentages.

Let’s consider an example. A stock fund increased in value by 5% over one year. Where did that come from? How much of that was from specific stocks that the fund manager bought or sold? How much was from overall market growth or the performance of a specific industry? The percentages generated by the attribution analysis software explain which decisions helped and hurt the fund. By looking at lots of these numbers and finding patterns among them, I develop an objective basis to write about why the fund performed as it did.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I sometimes use Excel spreadsheets to rearrange the attribution numbers to make them easier to analyze. For example, I may sort the list of stocks so that the largest contributor to performance is at the top, followed by other contributors in descending order.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Without math, I wouldn’t have any objective data to inform my understanding of fund performance. With math, I can form and test hypotheses by looking at the data. When I get a chance to interview the fund manager, I can ask questions that test and expand on my hypotheses. The numbers don’t tell the entire story, so it’s important to get input from the professionals who manage a fund.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you? (In other words, is it easier to do this math at work or do you feel relatively comfortable with math all the time?)

I don’t love math, but I like how numbers make my job easier by providing insights. I do what’s necessary to obtain those insights.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I stopped after algebra and geometry. I did not take calculus, although now I wish that I had forced myself to struggle through it. Math did not come easily to me.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

The skills that I had to learn weren’t mathematical. When I studied to earn my credential as a chartered financial analyst, a credential held by many fund managers, I learned about financial analysis. I also learned about Excel spreadsheets, which help me format the numbers to make them easier to analyze.

Anything else you want to mention?

Don’t underestimate the power of learning to write well about the numbers generated by math. That got me one of my first job offers in college, when my statistics professor asked me to help students in his class. Today, writing about numbers helps me to help my clients communicate better.

It sounds like even if you don’t love math, you can learn to respect it and get along with it like Susan does.  Interested in knowing more?  Let me know, and I will make a connection with Susan for you.

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