Writing Myth #1: Writers Can’t Do Math

My first month’s topic deals with busting writing myths that revolve around writing fiction and writers. The first myth— in case you missed the title—is: Writers Can’t Do Math.

Timeline error with character ages or dates? Writers can’t do math. Science explanation doesn’t make sense? Writers can’t do math. The entire set-up sounds implausible? Writers can’t do math. In short, just accept that writers work with words and not numbers, and don’t question it.

This myth is something I’ve seen around for years— from writers of fanfiction to writers who are published and well-known— and it even has it’s own tropes page.

I also believe that this goes along with another myth I see often— engineers can’t write/spell.

Both myths are troubling. The first because it gives writers an easy out when a reader spots a mistake— be it large or small. They can simply hand-wave it away by saying writers can’t do math. More often than not it’s being used as an excuse because the writer was too lazy to do their research.

Now, I’m not expecting all writers to be capable of doing differential equations or knowing the aerodynamics of their super cool (but maybe slightly improbable) spaceship. I am capable of suspension of disbelief, and as long as the plot doesn’t get outrageous, I’m good. But when a writer couldn’t even be bothered to keep track of simple things like birth dates (wait, his mom was how old when he was born?), or blatantly breaking the laws of physics when the story isn’t even science fiction or fantasy, I have issues. One or two errors— especially when they’re small and easy to overlook or inconsequential to the plot— are fine. Writers (and their editors) are human and humans make mistakes. But if a book has glaring errors left and right, I will be taken out of the plot— no matter how griping— and have a hard time finishing it.

The myth provides an easy out for writers if they don’t want to be bothered to put a bit more effort into their writing. After all, who cares about the details, everybody knows writers can’t do math. This is a harmful attitude to have as a writer. Not only are you insulting the intelligence of your audience— for they can and will catch your mistakes; always assume they’re is smarter than you— but you’re potentially harming yourself as well.

If you want to be a successful published author, then basic math skills are a must. If you’re going the self-published route, then you’ll need to know budgeting and marketing skills. If you want to be taken seriously as a self-published author, your book will need at the bare minimum one editor. Editors can be pricey, and you get what you pay for, so don’t skimp out. Then there’s commissioning a cover artist— which you also shouldn’t skimp on— for your book cover, figuring out your publishing platform, and marketing your book— nobody will buy it if they don’t know it exists. Oh, and don’t forget trying to calculate a benefit/cost. How many copies will you have to sell to simply break even and earn back what you initially invested?

Traditional publishing involves basic math as well, so don’t think you’ll be dodging a math bullet by going that route. Publishers don’t give you your advance all at once. It probably won’t be huge to begin with, but then you have to pay your agent, and that pesky government income tax. In short, if you’re expecting to quit your job and make it big as a writer when you finally land a publishing deal for your first book, don’t. Unless you have incredible luck, that will not happen and you should plan accordingly. While you don’t have to worry about paying for editors or cover art out of pocket, you probably will have to pay for some marketing to supplement whatever your publisher is doing. They may do some marketing for your book, but maybe not as much as you want.

If you’re still with me after dashing your dreams that writers don’t need math, then you might recall that earlier I mentioned a second related myth— engineers can’t write/spell. I work in a Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) field, and this is a myth I see a lot. I saw it in college, and I see it in my job.

Similar to how writers like to excuse their errors by saying they can’t do math, engineers have a tendency to excuse their writing errors by stating they can’t spell or write. Who cares if they can’t explain the results, the report doesn’t flow, or is riddled with spelling errors? As long as the math is correct, everything’s good, right?

Wrong. Again, this is not just incorrect, but harmful. I have heard of at least one instance where a company was looking into making a non-technical person a supervisor simply based on the belief that engineers can’t write reports. I write reports all the time for work, and read technical reports published by engineers— proof that engineers can write well. That’s not to say there aren’t some less than stellar writers out there in the STEM field— I have edited their work— but the presumption that all engineers can’t write is wrong, and provides a convenient excuse for engineers to take advantage of.

Both myths are also harmful to those who want to pursue writing or a career in a STEM field— something I have experienced first-hand. It can be discouraging to have an interest and passion for math and science as well as writing, when you’re constantly being confronted by these myths. You start to think you have to pick between one or the other— which I did for a time, giving up writing to pursue a STEM career. You also feel like you have to hide a part of your life— sometimes it’s easier to just go along with the prevalent myth being discussed than admit you actually enjoy writing/math.

Writers can spread ideas, provide commentary on the world we live in, or simply provide an escape from our everyday lives. Math and science are essential in ensuring our 21st century daily lives run smoothly.  Understanding both is important. There will always be people who are better at one than the other, and that’s fine. But there’s plenty of people who are good at both, and should be encouraged to pursue both.

If you’re a writer who hates math with a passion, or an engineer who can’t write to save your life, that doesn’t mean you should avoid it at all costs by relying on a myth. Instead, acknowledge your weakness and try to improve your skills. I may enjoy writing, math and science, but I’m not very good at  public speaking— one reason I chose to have a blog rather than a vlog. I still have to give the occasional presentation for work, and I will spend hours practicing it until I have it memorized and feel comfortable. Public speaking may never be one of my strengths, but because I work at it, I’m passable.

If you enjoy both like myself, then know you’re not alone. It’s okay to have dreams of being a writer and major in a STEM field, you don’t have to pick sides. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing both, or keeping one on the side as a hobby.

That’s all for today. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments. Next time I’ll be tackling a myth that usually appears in fantasy with female characters.

—Kay S. Beckett

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