The Write Stuff: Numbers Game

Alan Crawford write stuff
15 Sep, 2022


The Write Stuff

Alan Crawford write stuff
September 2022

Numbers Game

By Alan Crawford
Impact Editor

“There are only two numbers,” the late New Yorker editor John Bennet used to say. “Big and small.” That was Bennet’s way of reminding writers of the perils of aiming for greater numerical specificity than any situation usually called for. Writing about numbers is tricky. It is easy, in the pursuit of accuracy, for example, to give TMI.

In PR Daily, Allison Carter offers some useful tips on how to avoid that trap by using numbers effectively.

  1. Don’t include every number, she says: “It’s tempting to write out every decimal to five places and shove every digit into one paragraph. But unless you’re working on an earnings report, ESG or other communiqué that requires specificity for legal reasons, aim for clarity over maximum precision. In most cases, it’s OK to round to a whole number, especially if it’s an item like a percentage.” You should also limit the proximity between numbers, “lest your writing become a soup of digits.”
  1. Mix ’em up. “Two-thirds, 2/3, two-in-three and 66% are all ways of describing the same number. Don’t be afraid to find synonyms,” much as you do for words that — occurring too frequently — might become monotonous.
  1. Explain yourself. Numbers by themselves are a graph. You might have to provide context. Consider sample sizes for surveys, margins of error or dates of data collection.
  1. Tell the truth. Always question percentages that come without raw figures. You could say your web traffic shot up 1,000%, “but if you only had one visitor the month before, that’s a lot less impressive. Don’t use percentages to describe small numbers and sample sizes. While you’re at it, don’t confuse percentage change and a percentage point change: an increase of 10% to 13% is a 3 percentage point increase, but a 30% increase.”
  1. And consult your AP Stylebook. AP “now uses % in most instances where a number is used and not the word Do still spell out the word if it’s used in a colloquial sense, such as ‘zero percent chance.’” Spell out fractions that are less than one: three-fourths, for example. And put a space between a number and a fraction, such as 2 2/3. Spell out numbers nine and under, while 10 and up require numerals. But don’t begin a sentence with a numeral, which reminds us of this fact: There are almost always exceptions. If you’re not sure, look it up!

Annoying Word of the MonthPivot. Everybody today pivots, like we’re all basketball players, making a show of changing directions without actually moving in space. It’s no longer good enough to change or shift. We pivot in our careers, and our companies pivot from one strategic direction to another. Why don’t any of us — just for variety — spin, swivel, twirl or pirouette?

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