Writing that isn’t really writing by Nadia Eldemerdash

Post date: Feb 12, 2018 9:09:24 PM

Last semester, I had an engineering graduate student come in with a complex paper on…something. My memory is a bit hazy, not least because my grasp on the information was tenuous, but I do remember that it had something to do with concrete and pressure, with implications for construction – things like building bridges, one assumes. One may assume also that, of all the papers I’ve consulted on over the course of my brief period at the Writing Center, this would not be the paper that would stick particularly in mind. But it does, and I’ll tell you why right now: it wasn’t a paper. It was a math textbook.

Okay, that’s perhaps not a fair assessment. It was a paper, and a good one at that. But it relied in large part on a long series of mathematical equations, whole pages of them. You thought writing was intimidating? I gave up on math the day I was introduced to long division. It was all I could do not to duck under the desk and hide.

The student in question was introducing a new solution to a problem related to the topic, which I’m going to call concrete stress and hope that’s close enough to the actual thing. He was arguing that a better way to measure…something related to concrete stress was to include a new variable, which required its own equation to determine. Hence the pages and pages of math.

So far so good. I understood enough of what he was saying to have a reasonably intelligent conversation about the clarity of his writing, the structure, all that good stuff that we do here at the Writing Center. Then we reached the crux of the paper: the new variable. He explained it to me, very patiently, and I felt my grasp begin to tighten. I drew a graph demonstrating what he had told me. “Yes!” he said, and I all but cheered in the middle of the computer lab. But it would not last, sadly – the graph was the right shape, he said, but in order to add his new variable, it would essentially have to be in 3-D.

And here it was. He needed to be able to explain that in words, and that was exactly what he was struggling with. We talked about the vocabulary used in his field, but alas, there simply wasn’t anything that he was aware of that would adequately explain his point. I suggested he draw a graph (Word can do 3-D graphs, right?) and stick it in the paper, but that wasn’t an option. We talked and talked and talked, and I drew a lot of things all over my copy of his paper, but by the time our session was over we were nowhere nearer a verbal explanation of his point than we were when we started. The best I could do was suggest he talk to his professor about useful vocabulary, and then deflate as I watched him walk away.

So the question arises: how do you explain in words things that are not in words? As a writer, it’s hard to believe that there are some things you can’t use words for. Words are what I do for a living, and for the most part, they do their job. They tell us color and shape and size, feelings and thoughts and expressions. But some concepts defy language, and so language must evolve. Shakespeare invented over 1700 words to be able to write his plays and express himself, including “accused,” “amazement,” and the surprisingly mundane “bedroom.” He’s not here, sadly, to consult with this particular student, but I have confidence in that young man. I believe he can make up a new word, one that one day will become so ubiquitous that another aspiring writer will describe it as “surprisingly mundane.”