5 Friendly Tips for Writing with Numbers

by Mary Ann Mazey

Published at 2014-03-11


As TEC’s business editor, I edit a variety of documents containing in-text, tabled, charted, and graphed calculations, statistics, or results. I love working with numbers (I even used to be a math teacher), but through my business editing experience, I’ve learned that some numbers are much nicer to work with than others.


Basically, the easier your numbers are to read, the quicker and more accurate your editor’s check of them can be. It’s not that editors mind slogging through calculations that are unclear, incomplete, or disorganized — it’s our job to fix this stuff! — it’s that this slogging can be very time-consuming, with one of two unfortunate outcomes: (1) your editing budget gets busted, or (2) the editor has less time to devote to editing the actual text of your project for spelling, grammar, clarity, consistency, and all those other wonderful aspects of professionally polished writing.


Fortunately, there are some easy ways to ensure your numbers don’t cause any unnecessary hold-ups for your editor.



5 Friendly Tips


1. Indicate unit (and be consistent). Have you provided financial statistics for several countries but not said in what type(s) of currency those statistics are expressed? Does your recipe tell how many grams of one ingredient to use, but how many tbsp. of another? Make sure it’s clear what your numbers represent, and try to be conscious of using the same units throughout.


2. Check your totals. As a trained second set of eyes on your project, your editor will confirm that your numbers add up (literally and figuratively). However, giving your numbers a once-over yourself before submission can eliminate obvious errors (“Wait a second, 230 x 5 isn’t 400!”). Ideally, you want the miscalculations in your document to be the exception, not the rule.


3. Line ’em up. Simple yet effective. Tables are much faster to check, and errors much easier for the editor to spot, when all numbers are neatly lined up one under the other. That’s how you will want the information formatted for your reader anyway, right?


4. Look for holes in your (number) story. If you’ve left out numbers completely, your editor can’t properly check your calculations.


5. Show your work. Leaving out how you arrived at a number can be as confusing as leaving out numbers themselves. From nutrition management to personal finance, if you are offering your readers DIY advice that requires them to perform calculations, provide explanations for the basis of those calculations — that the “+50” is the estimated transportation cost allowance, or that the “ x .3” represents their 30 per cent of calories from carbs — and a clear step-by-step example they can follow.


Give these tips a try and see if your number writing isn’t that much better for it.