Math and Publishing: A Report of My Phone Call with a Young Student

The email read: “My algebra teacher asked me to contact someone in a profession I’m interested in pursuing to find out where math is used. Is there someone in your organization I could speak to?”

“Yeah, me. I love speaking with young people,” I wrote back. “I’d be glad to be interviewed for your homework assignment.”

Later that day I was on the phone with Madison, an eighth grader from Florida, who loves reading and writing and is in a special accelerated program where her teacher (who I’m certain is a good one) strongly believes education needs to be relevant.

Where is math used in writing and publishing?


Madison reads above her grade level. When she was in third grade she read at the seventh grade level. Now fourteen, she’s currently enjoying The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I suggested she try the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. She has a tenacious policy never to abandon a book once she begins reading it. Half our conversation focused on questions about what I do for a living and half focused on the initial issue of mathematics.

I told her I had gone through college-level calculus in my studies.

“Where do you use math?” she asked.

“In accounting expenses and income and figuring out how to charge for my services… In calculating the tips on my lunch bill when I eat out with clients and colleagues… In trying to apportion the time in my day… In figuring out how many inches the spine of a cover needs to be based on the page count of a book and the thickness of the paper stock the interior is being printed on…”

“Anywhere else?”

“Knowing math has made me appreciate the world. it comes up sometimes when I’m editing or writing a book. For instance, did you know that sine waves from trigonometry can express sound waves? Or that everything in nature can be expressed in fractal patterns? That the human brain find harmony in the geometry of the golden mean ratio, which shows up in music, in swirling seashells, in the proportions of people’s faces, and in Ancient Greek and Roman temples?”

Sometimes I work on books that are about science and include math. Being able to comprehend those books has enriched my thinking.

It was an awesome question that I highly recommend everybody consider. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Madison by phone, and I got the sense that she’d make a terrific editor in due course because, among other things, she said she could tell about people’s personalities from their writing.

Her last question to me was: “How do you think I could best prepare myself for a career in publishing?” A very good question to ask, especially since the world is always changing and our skills need to change along with it. I figure she’s got eight more years to prepare to launch in life. By then the publishing field may not look much like it does now–considering that technological development makes the computer systems and software we use obsolete every two to four years.

What remains when everything else in this industry changes? Ability to discern quality writing. Ability to articulate perception from reading. How human beings connect. After a few moments of consideration, I suggested she get on her high school and college newspapers, keep reading voraciously, and when she liked something a lot and thought it was well done to make a point to read it a second time and try to figure out what about it made it work.

That last suggestion in particular is probably good advice for all writers–of any age.

If you’re reading this, thanks Madison! I hope you have a good summer.