As a freelancer, I may work alone, but I'm always looking to other writers for strategies they use to become (and stay) successful--and then adopting them myself. That means I try to keep up on what new topics are trending among fellow freelancers (say, the demand for content marketing writers). But I have to admit I was surprised to learn of a new book for writers about something that impacts you as a freelancer (and a a person) every day--yet one you may not have given much thought to--math. So I did a Q and A with Laura Laing, a freelance writer and the author of Math for Writers: Tell a Better Story, Get Published, Make More Money.
Q: I became a writer because I didn’t want to do math. :) Seriously, why is important that writers understand math? And how can math help you pitch more effectively?
A: Let me allay your fears right off the bat: You don’t need to have a great understanding of trigonometry or Euclidean geometry or calculus. The math that most writers depend on every day is pretty darned basic. But there are basically three reasons math is useful to writers: It can help you tell a better story, get published and make more money. It really is that simple.
Not all readers are as enamored with the written word as we writers are. In fact, when was the last time you wrote a reported story without including at least one number? Numbers help readers better understand what you are conveying. And sometimes those numbers come in pretty ugly and difficult-to-understand packages. In that situation, it’s the writer’s job to wrangle those numbers into a format that gives even more meaning to the story.
And of course writing is critical for pitching — whether you want to write an article or a book. The query is basically a sales piece, right? You want to sell your services, ideas and expertise to an editor. Numbers have always been important in sales. For example, to demonstrate to the editor that your idea is a good one for the publication’s market, you might cite a statistic that links your story to the magazine’s readers. And it might be more impactful to translate a large number to a percentage: Instead of noting that nearly 26 million American have diabetes, it might be more striking to say that 10% of the U.S. population has diabetes.
Finally, there is tons of math in the business of managing a freelance writing career. I believe that every freelancer should know their hourly rate, be able to set a project rate, and have a good sense of the time it takes to complete assignments. In addition, freelancers can use math to manage their goals and client diversity. This protects them when the unexpected happens — like a client suddenly bails or the bottom falls out of a particular industry. When writers avoid this kind of math, they’re pretty much throwing money away.
Q: Give me an example of a common math mistake, or one you’ve seen writers make.
A: Percentages and percentage points are not the same thing, but that fact can be glossed over or completely ignored. Here’s a made-up example:
"Average interest rates on personal savings accounts have grown by 1 percent since last year, increasing from 2 percent to 3 percent.”
But the interest rates haven’t increased by 1%. They’ve increased by 1 percentage point. In fact, in this example, the percentage increase is 50% — way more impressive than a mere 1%.
But the biggest mistake I see writers make is avoiding the math altogether. I know lots of writers who feel completely out of their realm when it comes to computations. It’s a real shame if the story suffers because the writer feels intimidated by the math.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how the book came about, and why you decided to write it in the first place.
A: A lot of my writer friends were really surprised when I published my first book, Math for Grownups. “You know how to do math??? But you’re a writer!!” As I talked to more and more writers about math (and revealed my former life as a high school math teacher), I realized that a really big chunk of them were absolutely terrified of math. It didn’t take me long to decide that my second book would be Math for Writers.
My whole take on math is that everyone can learn it. But as adults, we often come to the table with really bad experiences — condescending teachers, prolonged frustrations, that giant red X. A lot of the work I do is convincing people that they can overcome these mental blocks and get good at the math they need to really be successful.
Q: I think I see a knowledge and understanding of math as yet another way a writer can stand out from the crowd, so to speak. You’ve been a very successful freelancers, so I have two questions—what attributes do think are important to thriving today as a self-employed writer? And what attributes have helped you succeed?
A: I think successful freelance writers are strategic. This means setting measurable goals, knowing which rules to break and when, and managing their business in ways that maximize opportunities. It also means putting our emotions in our back pocket sometimes. That doesn’t mean we ignore our feelings — not at all! — but in order to make decisions, it can be good to recognize that our reactions to situations may not be the best barometer.
Here’s an example: This year, I made the decision to fire my biggest client. I’d been working with them for four years, and in 2013, they represented 50 percent of my income. I might have allowed my fear (a very normal reaction) to keep them on board. Instead, I mapped out a plan for replacing the work. (Yes, I used math, but it was really basic stuff, I promise!)
Of course there are other useful attributes as well: perseverance, creativity, diligence, and a willingness to take risks. I’ve found that with a clear plan that’s based in facts that I can verify, these other values fall right into place. It’s so easy for me to get off track when I don’t know where I’m going!