Quotable: Math vs. Writing

Seen at kitchen table math, the sequel:

I can recall the deep satisfaction I felt on the all-too-rare occasions at school when the concepts or formulas fell into place. It seemed an entirely different discipline from writing, where something arises from a blank page through a combination of hard work and patience, with a sliver of creativity.

With math, the experience is more like discovering something that’s always existed and finally decided to stop playing hard-to-get.

Ralph Gardner
Making Math Fun (Seriously)

And From the Comments on that Quote

In both math and writing, the core idea that you are trying to express exists somewhere in the aether. In both math and writing, you start out staring at the blank page, trying to figure out how to summon the idea, make it yours, and commit it to the page.

In both math and writing, you make false starts (unless you are very lucky) and work hard (unless you are very lucky) to express the idea with precision and clarity. In both math and writing, your familiarity with the idea that you are trying to express and your prior practice at expressing ideas can sometimes give you a head start in knowing in which direction to start.

Math is writing. Most of math is persuasive writing; math is an exquisitely structured argument.


Doing math or computer programming at a professional level is a lot like writing. Sometimes it flows naturally and fluently, and sometimes it is blocked and it is like struggling to lift a huge boulder to get anything done.


The discussion continues at the original post and a follow-up.

What do you think?

Is math like writing, or different? And if different, is one of them easier? Or are they both like Gene Fowler’s description: “staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead”?

2 thoughts on “Quotable: Math vs. Writing

  1. Me, too. At least, the best of learning math feels that way, like discovering something. Unfortunately, too often math is taught the other way, as a nose-to-the-grindstone discipline of cranking out answers.

    Then again, I think the best writing often feels like discovery, too. In those rare times when the writing really flows, it feels like one is exploring a new world, or at least seeing the old one with new eyes.

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