How much is 4?

While I’m not a big math person, I like basic math for being unambiguous. In our everyday world, 2 plus 2 is always 4. Even for complex math problems we know there’s still going to be only one right answer.

Wouldn’t it be great if writing were like that? In a way, it is. But you have to come at the problem from the opposite direction. In writing, you already know (or should know) the point you are trying to make. You already know that the answer is 4. The real question is what formula you should use to take your readers there. One way is to give them 2 plus 2. But it might be more effective to present them with 3 plus 1. Or 11 minus 7. Or the square root of 16.

Just as there’s more than one correct way to get to 4, there’s more than one correct way to get to your idea. Most people already understand this at the broad organizational level. You could lay everything out in chronological order, but maybe alphabetical order would work even better. Sometimes fiction works better than nonfiction, as when Aesop told fables or when Jesus told parables.

Likewise, even when you get down to the details, there can be more than one right answer. Maybe instead of forcing a long sentence to adhere to the rules of commas and semicolons, you should break it into two or three shorter sentences. Maybe it’s more effective to keep using the same word over and over instead of running to your thesaurus to find a bunch of synonyms.

Now, this doesn’t mean you are free to do anything you want, any time you want. Remember, I said there can be more than one right answer, not that there are no wrong answers. You can’t make 2 plus 3 equal 4.

But if you ever feel like you are getting bogged down in your writing, try using a different equation. It can give you a fresh sense of freedom, and make your writing more compelling.