Publisher’s view: Two trains leave the station

Ashley Sexton Gordon
Ashley Sexton Gordon

“She’s got to show her work,” said the woman sitting across from me at the dinner table. “How else will the teacher know that she is getting to the answer the right way?”

We were spending a portion of the meal discussing the fact that my second-grader received a C on a math test, even though every answer was correct. “I did it in my head,” my 7-year-old said. As an English nerd and a journalism major, I’m easily impressed with those who can crank out simple math without a calculator.

My daughter got every answer right.

“But you’re missing the point,” my fellow dinner guest said. This adamant and passionate woman is a former mechanical engineer turned math teacher. “It is imperative to get to the answer the right way, because there is more than one way to get the right answer. It might not matter now, but it will matter later.”

Like when my daughter is building a bridge.

I get it, I get it. Showing your work does matter in math. But my world is not a world of black and white. When writing, there are a million word combinations that can convey the same message. The thesaurus alone proves that there are very few words that can’t be substituted for others. There is always a better way—perhaps a more clever way—to write. Which is why some authors get so bogged down in revisions that they never produce anything to be read by the general public. There is no right or wrong.

I don’t want to show my work.

In fact, it would be a great disappointment to really see how the sausage is made on any magazine that we produce, any event that I host, any Sunday-morning church shuffling that is cluttered—and behind schedule—but produces children with hair brushed and two shoes that match each. It was a heck of a time getting here, but the end result is presentable and that’s all that really matters to me.

Engineers don’t think like that.

I met a man recently who told me his greatest joy was to spend an entire day at a coffee shop with an Excel spreadsheet, going over the many ways a project could be implemented. “I am a master of efficiency and finance,” he said. “I sweat about the fact that we could have saved a buck doing it another way. If I wasn’t forced, I would just revise, revise, revise and never move into action.”

This is my death. Excel spreadsheet death.

This death is only matched by my pure hatred of the word problem. You see, I believe word problems are sneaky. They seem to appeal to the readers out there: Here’s an interesting story, they entice. See if you can figure this one out. But then the story quickly loses plot to a bunch of mumbo jumbo numbers and figures that make my head spin.

Two trains leave the station at the same time, one heading west and the other east. The westbound train travels 20 miles per hour slower than the eastbound train. If the two trains are 900 miles apart after 5 hours, what is the rate of the westbound train?

Shoot me now.

Actually, the westbound train is going 80 miles an hour, but I only know that because I cheated. And frankly, I don’t care how fast it is going. I only care about what time it arrives, and I can check the train schedule for that.

That’s what people do.

But people also build bridges, and perform surgeries, and create medicines to cure disease. They construct sky scrapers and city infrastructures that demand precision. They need to show their work. Not everyone can operate under the rules of flexibility and negotiation, as do those in the legal system, politics, sales and, yes, the world of writing.

“You do realize that the instructions say to show your work,” said my husband, waving the C math test from across the room. “She didn’t follow the directions.”

Of course, I did not see that. I rarely read directions. Which may be part of the problem. As for my daughter’s next math test? We will cross that bridge when we come to it.

Let’s just make sure it’s not a bridge that I built.