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Writing Proofs, or, When in Doubt, Print it Out!

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Writing Proofs, or, When in Doubt, Print it Out!

*Check out my 10 Tips for Writing Revealing Dialogue on the Carve blog!*

When I was nineteen, I dropped out of college, drove to L.A., and tried to become an actress. When that didn’t pan out, I went back to school and thought about what I could do for a living now instead of starring in Hollywood blockbusters. At that time, I loved creative writing, but I didn’t think it was a career option, and after my time in L.A., I didn’t want to pursue something else that involved a lot of rejection. So I decided to become a math teacher.

I was under the impression that I would need to major in math if I wanted to teach it (this is untrue — all you have to do is pass a test that’s easier than the math section of the SATs), so I started taking a bunch of math classes: Multivariable Calculus, Differential Equations, Complex Analysis.

My least favorite classes were the ones taught by the crazy Russian professors, who, I’m pretty sure, knew only three words in English: “yes,” “no,” and “elementary,” the last of which being their aggressive comment as they scribbled onto the chalkboard strings of equations that did not seem elementary to me.

One of my better homework assignments from college math.

One of my better homework assignments from college math.

My favorite classes were the ones in which we proved theorems. In a way, writing an elegant proof is a lot like writing a story. You start with a set of givens, and you usually know the conclusion you want to reach at the end. But you’re not quite sure how to get from point A to point B. You have to be creative. You have to play around and try different things. You start out with a sentence (mathematical, of course), and another sentence logically follows. There’s usually a turning point towards the end of the proof, and then suddenly, the result becomes clear.

Sometimes, when I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong in a proof or a math problem, I would write everything out in really large handwriting, taking up entire sheets of paper. It sounds stupid, but when everything was bigger, my mistakes would become glaringly obvious. And with the math screaming at me from the page, it was usually easier to see what I needed to do next.

*  *  *

Minoring in math was somewhat of a hindrance when I first started teaching. I taught Pre-Algebra and Algebra I to students who barely knew their multiplication tables. I had to come out of the clouds of higher mathematics and back down to the basics. What was elementary to me was not for my students, and it took me a while to realize that.

One thing that did carry over from my college math days was an insistence that my students write things down. I encouraged mental math, but also insisted that they write things down, especially on tests and other times when it “counted.”  I adopted the catch phrase, “when in doubt, write it out.”  I also told my students the trick of writing large. “It sounds silly,” I said, “ but the bigger you write, the easier it will be to see your mistakes on the paper.”

My very first classroom.

My very first classroom.

And yet, I don’t always follow my own advice. Can you believe that I submitted one of my novels to my mentor, to readers, and even to agents, without ever once printing it out and revising it on paper? I’m really embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true, and I’m confessing right now.

The problem is that I’m stingy and environmentally-friendly. I figured, why spend twenty dollars at Staples and kill trees when I can just revise on my computer instead?

The reason should be obvious by now. It’s so much easier to see your mistakes on paper.

Last week I worked through the edits and revisions my agent gave me, and as a final step before sending the manuscript back to him, I printed it out at Staples and read through it one more time. I found so many things to change.  There were missing commas, unnecessary adverbs, repeated words, awkward phrases. I was mortified that I’d sent such a messy copy to my agent in the first place.

I’ve learned my lesson, and here it is spelled out for the rest of you:  If you think you can do all your revisions on the computer, you’re wrong. Print it out. Print it out double-spaced, and maybe even in a font larger than 12. If you’re worried about the trees, print double-sided and change the margins to 0.5. Write off the expense on your taxes.

When in doubt, print it out. Because I guarantee, you will catch more mistakes on paper than you ever will on the computer. It’s elementary, and I’ll never forget it again.

Take a good look at your manuscript..on paper!

Take a good look at your manuscript..on paper!


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

One response »

  1. Good advice. I always tell any students I work with that if they want to get something really sharp, they should not only print it out, but also read it out loud to themselves. There’s something about doing this which seems to send it throug different circuits in your brain and you’ll suddenly find yourself wondering why you didn’t spot the gaping flaws that are suddenly so blindingly obvious, yet you’d missed on all your previous edits. It seems that when you read in your head, you will sometimes read what you think it says, and you only realise what it actually says when you hear youself speak he words.


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