Behind every author is a great editor. And I was dang lucky to have Jennifer Lawler as my editor for Math for Grownups. What I didn’t know was that I’d helped her out, too. Who says English majors can’t do math? Here’s her story:
A few years ago, I was working as a book development editor for Adams Media, the company that published Laura’s Math for Grownups, and I was assigned to edit the book. While I was looking forward to working with Laura, I was also a little nervous. Although I’m pretty good with basic math operations, I’m not that confident and tend to second-guess myself a lot. I just hoped that when I asked Laura questions that she wouldn’t give the dramatic sigh that my seventh-grade algebra teacher used to do when I expressed confusion.
Fortunately, she didn’t. Laura, like her book, is a kind and supportive person. It was fun to see that aspect of her personality show up on the page. And it was a project that helped me learn more about math than I did in junior high and high school combined. I don’t mean I memorized a bunch of formulas. I mean I learned a new way to think about math.
One of the first things Laura discussed in her book was the various ways people use to arrive at an answer to a problem. For years, I’d felt like I was doing math wrong, even though I was getting the correct answer, because I had a bunch of little shortcuts and methods I used that I had never been taught by a teacher in school. Laura showed how that is just fine—and she also emphasized the point that often in life we don’t need to be exact, we just need to be reasonably close. We can estimate, another habit I have that I always thought was somehow wrong of me to be using.
Because Math for Grownups was meant to be a review of mathematical concepts for people just like me, I figured that any question I asked Laura was a question that a reader like me might have. So for the first time in my life, or at least since seventh grade, I didn’t feel embarrassed about asking math questions. “I’m doing it for the reader!” I told myself, and then Laura would either explain what I had missed or add a note or a sidebar to address the question. As the process continued, I felt more and more confident about my abilities. And I stopped beating myself up for making a mistake. Do I agonize over a typo in an email I dash off to a friend? No, because I know I’m a good writer and so I don’t feel defensive about it. But I used to beat myself up for simple math mistakes that anyone can make. That just made me feel even worse about math.
Laura pointed out that even mathematicians make mistakes in simple computations. For some reason, I hadn’t made that connection before. If I, a professional writer, can make a spelling error in an email, then of course even a mathematician can sometimes multiply 9 x 9 and come up with 72.
One of the things that working with Laura taught me was to ask myself questions about my results in order to catch those simple mistakes—questions along the lines of, “Does this answer seem reasonable?” So, if I’m doubling a recipe, and my calculation for the double batch shows an amount smaller than for the single batch, I know I’ve done something wrong. This is the math equivalent of proofreading, and once I understood how it worked, I was a lot more confident about my answers.
By the same token, I learned that I could look it up, just the way I do for a word I can’t remember how to spell. There’s nothing shameful about not remembering the formula for calculating volume. And I’ve dog-eared many pages in Laura’s book where I can find formulas I use a lot but can never seem to remember. I can never remember how to spell “occasionally” (have to look it up every.single.time) but I don’t think that somehow makes me a bad writer. Working with Laura taught me how to apply this same type of thinking to my math skills.
My greatest reward? Now I deal with math like a grownup, instead of like that frustrated seventh-grader I once was.
Jennifer Lawler is the author or coauthor of more than thirty nonfiction books as well as sixteen romances under various pen names. Her publishing experience includes stints as a a literary agent and as an acquisitions editor. She just released the second edition of Dojo Wisdom for Writers, the second book in her popular Dojo Wisdom series. She also offers classes in writing book proposals, planning a nonfiction book for self-publishing authors, and writing queries and synopses for novelists at www.BeYourOwnBookDoctor.com (under the “classes” tab).
And have you heard? I’m working on a new ebook, Math for Writers. Stay tuned for details!