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Why do the math when you’ve got a calculator?

By March 3, 2010How To

I know we’re all different ages here (like Ron is really old and Amanda is really (really) young) – but let’s pretend we were all in junior high in the mid-80’s together, just for a second. (I won’t make you do the math, I’m 36, which hangs me squarely in ‘not old’ and ‘not young’ limbo, relatively speaking.)

So, back in junior high, calculators were forbidden. They were seen as cheating tools. But, did you know that today they’re considered learning tools? They’re included on school supply lists along with pencils and 3-ring binders and White Out (which is another cheating tool, if you ask me).

The Writer’s Calculator

When I’m doing math and I have to add up a receipt (4.29 + 2.79+ 3.39 + 5.99), I’m all about using my calculator (the one on my computer, the one on my Blackberry or the one sitting on my desk). And, I have to admit, I always feel like I’m doing something wrong when I whip out my computerized math-brain. It’s like the guy on Sex and the City that has to take a shower immediately after sex because 30 years earlier the nuns told him intercourse was dirty. Calculator use sets off a reflex that kicks the ‘you’re cheating!’ button in my head.

But, it’s different when I’m writing. We (writers) have our own ‘calculator’ – it’s called a Thesaurus. And just like my calculator, it also lives on my computer, on the web, on my phone and on my desk.

I love my Thesaurus.

I’ve tried many…but am firmly and deeply head over heels for the one that lives in my MacBook. Apple does a lot of things right and this is one of them. Personally, I don’t think it’s cheating to use the Thesaurus to find words because (and tell me if you can relate) I know the word I want to use, I just can’t remember it. But, when I’m adding up those decimally pointed amounts on the receipt, the calculator isn’t reminding me of the answer that I already know, it’s telling me the answer plain and simple.

My thesaurus, if you will, is like an artist’s pallet. I have the vision in my head, and I look to the thesaurus (from time to time) to see what colors will help me bring it to life.

Image credit: FranKaño

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Ron Miller says:

    I probably shouldn’t leave a comment protesting you calling me old because it only calls attention to the fact that you were referring to me. But I can’t escape the fact, that even though we are such close friends, I was in junior high when you were born.

    Oh my gosh, when I think about it that way, maybe I really am old. My kids certainly thinks so. :-)
    .-= Ron Miller´s last blog ..The Ever-Changing Face of Technology =-.

  • Julie Roads says:

    Well…I call ’em like I see ’em.

  • Aaron Pogue says:

    I guess I took the advice of Stephen King too much to heart, because I threw away my thesaurus years ago, and I’ve never really looked back.

    Then again, that could just be the difference in our trades. As a creative writer, I benefit from finding the whole expression on my own, and as a technical writer…well, the language is pretty rigorously defined in spite of me. I can imagine copywriting falling somewhere in between, where a thesaurus could save hours and pay dividends.
    .-= Aaron Pogue´s last blog ..What I Learned about Writing this Week from Elmore Leonard =-.

  • Julie Roads says:

    Nah, I use it for creative pursuits as well!

    What did Stephen King say?

  • Aaron Pogue says:

    Heh, he said, “Throw it in the trash.” I’m sure there was a lot more to his explanation, but that’s the only bit I remember.

    Although, this is from On Writing, and that book lays heavy on the distinction between The Way You Do Things during a first draft, and The Way You Do Things during a rewrite, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the follow-up was, “Dig it back out of the trashcan once you’re finished with the first draft.” If so, I’m only halfway compliant.
    .-= Aaron Pogue´s last blog ..What I Learned about Writing this Week from Elmore Leonard =-.

  • Jed says:

    I use my thesaurus all the time. It’s not just a memory thing…it’s about seeking the best expression which is perfect for the idea on which you are chewing.

    When in grad school I chose to study Hebrew, my mentor said to me, “Why should you spend all of your academic energy learning Hebrew, only to come out of it as a mediocre Hebrew student (at best?) There are scholars who have done the translations from a position of expertise…they excel in the language. Read what they have written. It is about the content, not about the difficulty in getting there.” I took his advice and dropped Hebrew.

    I regret it to this day. It was only partially about the translations. I wish I could be conversant with friends who speak Hebrew. The advice was academically sound, but by life standards, it missed the point.

    For years now I have been thinking about contracting with a local Rabbi to learn conversational Hebrew. Maybe I will when I grow up.
    .-= Jed´s last blog ..STREET THEATER: Dramatization of social and political issues, usually enacted outside, as on the street or in a park. =-.

  • Amanda says:

    The strangest part of being in university was being told that we would write the majority of our programming tests on paper. Using the IDE was cheating.

    Even in web development, using something like Dreamweaver is considered cheating by some, even if it’s useful. Sometimes, I need an IDE to tell me to close a bracket or close a tag.

    We can’t remember everything all at once. It’s why we have these fancy tools at our disposal in the first place. Also… I’m not THAT young. I’m, uh, older than 20!
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Happiness is not a fish you can catch. Nor is it a pant size. =-.

  • Ron Miller says:

    When I found out Sting had a Thesaurus to help him with his song writing, I knew it was OK. I don’t use it for finding a particular word, per se. I use it when I’m trying to avoid repeating the same expressions several times in the same piece. It’s sometimes a challenge to find a word that means almost the same thing, but doesn’t repeat what you said before.

    So I use a thesaurus or if I’m lazy, I just open my Skype client and text Julie. What’s another word for x (which is what I did this morning and I have feeling is what stimulated this blog post).
    .-= Ron Miller´s last blog ..The Ever-Changing Face of Technology =-.

  • Bert Jackson says:

    First, I have to go with Ron on the young/old thing. 36 is not in the middle, especially when you are older than 36. Trust me, as time goes by you will see the marker magically move with you.

    Not only were we not allowed to use calculators in high school, but we were even allowed to use sliderules! What’s a sliderule? Look it up!

    I have mixed feelings about these tools. On the one hand they save a great deal of time and let you get to the process at hand. But I wonder what kind of brain muscle has atrophied from lack of math activity. Think about a GPS. Before I used one, I was great at finding my way around. Now, I follow its directions blindly. Like the time in Baltimore when it had me get off the highway then back on at the next exit. WTF?

    On the other hand, I do use a rhyming dictionary when writing songs. Sting uses one of those, too. So there.

  • Bert Jackson says:

    OK, not allowed to use sliderules. I proofread first, I swear. Damn you Monaco font.

  • Julie Roads says:

    Jed! “…it’s about seeking the best expression which is perfect for the idea on which you are chewing.” YES – totally.

    The words inspire me.

    And shalom. And oy vey (oh wait, that one was yiddish)

  • Julie Roads says:

    Bert – for the record, I do know that 36 isn’t the middle – god forbid! I was sarcasticating.

    I totally agree with you about the GPS – it saves my life AND makes me totally useless.

  • Ari Herzog says:

    Thanks for sharing info about the Mac dictionary/thesaurus application. I never noticed it before; just moved to my dock thing. I’d previously been using a mix of and for such queries.
    .-= Ari Herzog´s last blog ..How My Blog Reading is Changing =-.

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