The Rocky Relationship of Words and Numbers

Remember the old “Paint by Numbers”? If we painted the right colors in the numbered areas, we’d end up with a masterpiece (or so we thought).

This popped into my head after reading several items that discussed how numbers influence our writing.
 In “The act of writing in the age of numbers,” Stephen Marche ponders how word processing and numbers affect writing. The Los Angeles Times op-ed piece poses the question of whether chasing quantifiable criteria in our writing affects the quality. He argues that numbers have always affected writing in literature whether it be support for an argument or the meter of a poem.

The difference in today’s world, he states, is that the numbers have crept from the background into forefront. Writers check their hits and “likes.” Pieces are evaluated more on numbers; if something isn’t popular, it’s possible people won’t read it.

Kathy Caprino, Forbes blogger, warns against chasing the numbers in her post “The 5 Most Glaring Mistakes New Bloggers and Writers Make.” She says those who write content with the purpose of making it go viral will fail. There is no magic formula for pushing something into “viraldom.”

“I’ve come to learn this one thing about viral activity — you can’t plan it, predict it, or count on it,” Ms. Caprino writes.

Sure, I’m like everyone else. I check my blog stats. But I really try to avoid making those my purpose for writing something.

Probably the most depressing evidence of numbers taking over writing is the story of kulturBot, a “poetry” spewing robot now making its free verse way across Canada. (There’s a discussion here about what makes something poetry.)

After years of teaching English composition, I see many students looking for that formula. They want me to tell them where to place what words, so their writing will end up as masterpieces. I just can’t do that.

Part of writing is the different perspective, originality, and creativity the writer offers the reader. You can’t get that when you write by the numbers.

I always admired the kids who put the color they wanted in those designated areas instead of blindly following the numbers. Their paintings may not have looked like the picture on the box, but they were definitely interesting.

P.S.  Am I the only person who yells at my grammar checker because it is wrong so many times? There those numbers go again, trying to rule everything!