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University of Chicago Press
The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers

The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers

by Jane E. Miller


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226526300
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/03/2004
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jane E. Miller is associate professor in the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Trained as a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania, she has taught research methods and statistics for more than a decade. She has also written an advanced volume on the same topic, The Chicago Guide to Writing about Multivariate Analysis, to be published in Spring 2005.

Read an Excerpt

The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers

The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-52630-0

Chapter One
Why Write about Numbers?

Writing about numbers is an essential skill, an important tool in the repertoire of expository writers in many disciplines. For a quantitative analysis, presenting numbers and patterns is a critical element of the work. Even for works that are not inherently quantitative, one or two numeric facts can help convey the importance or context of your topic. An issue brief about educational policy might include a statistic about the prevalence of school voucher programs and how that figure has changed since the policy was enacted. Or, information could be provided about the impact of vouchers on students' test scores or parents' participation in schools. For both qualitative and quantitative works, communicating numeric concepts is an important part of telling the broader story.

As you write, you will incorporate numbers in several different ways: a few carefully chosen facts in a short article or a nonquantitative piece, a table in the analytic section of a scientific report, a chart of trends in the slides for a speech, a case example in a policy statement or marketing report. In each of these contexts, the numbers support other aspects of the written work. They are not taken in isolation, as in a simple arithmetic problem. Rather, they are applied to some larger objective, as in a math "word problem" where the results of the calculations are used to answer some real-world question. Instead of merely calculating average out-of-pocket costs of prescription medications, for instance, the results of that calculation would be included in an article or policy statement about insurance coverage for prescription medications. Used in that way, the numbers generate interest in the topic or provide evidence for a debate on the issue.

In many ways, writing about numbers is similar to other kinds of expository writing: it should be clear, concise, and written in a logical order. It should start by stating an idea or proposition, then provide evidence to support that thesis. It should include examples that the expected audience can relate to and descriptive language that enhances their understanding of how the evidence relates to the question. It should be written at a level of detail that is consistent with its expected use. It should set the context and define terms the audience might not be expected to know, but do so in ways that distract as little as possible from the main thrust of the work. In short, it will follow many of the principles of good writing, but with the addition of quantitative information.

When I refer to writing about numbers, I mean "writing" in a broad sense: preparation of materials for oral or visual presentation as well as materials to be read. Most of the principles outlined in this book apply equally to speech writing and the accompanying slides or to development of a Web site or an educational or advertising booth with an automated slide show.

Writing effectively about numbers also involves reading effectively about numbers. To select and explain pertinent quantitative information for your work, you must understand what those numbers mean and how they were measured or calculated. The first few chapters provide guidance on important features such as units and context to watch for as you garner numeric facts from other sources.


Numbers are used everywhere. In daily life, you encounter numbers in stock market reports, recipes, sports telecasts, the weather report, and many other places. Pick up a copy of your local newspaper, turn on the television, or connect to the Internet and you are bombarded by numbers being used to persuade you of one viewpoint or another. In professional settings, quantitative information is used in laboratory reports, research papers, books, and grant proposals in the physical and social sciences, in the policy arena, marketing and finance, and popular journalism. Engineers, architects, and other applied scientists need to communicate with their clients as well as with highly trained peers. In all of these situations, for numbers to accomplish their purpose, writers must succinctly and clearly convey quantitative ideas. Whether you are a policy analyst or an engineer, a journalist or a consultant, a college student or a research scientist, chances are you need to write about numbers.

Despite this apparently widespread need, few people are formally trained to write about numbers. Communications specialists learn to write for varied audiences, but rarely are taught specifically to deal with numbers. Scientists and others who routinely work with numbers learn to calculate and interpret the findings, but rarely are taught to describe them in ways that are comprehensible to audiences with different levels of quantitative expertise or interest. I have seen poor communication of numeric concepts at all levels of training and experience, from papers by undergraduates who were shocked at the very concept of putting numbers in sentences, to presentations by business consultants, policy analysts, and scientists, to publications by experienced researchers in elite, peer-reviewed journals. This book is intended to bridge the gap between correct quantitative analysis and good expository writing, taking into account the intended objective and audience.


A critical first step in any writing process is to identify the purpose of the written work.


What are the objectives of the piece? To communicate a simple point in a public service announcement? To use statistics to persuade magazine readers of a particular perspective? To serve as a reference for those who need a regular source of data for comparison and calculation? To test hypotheses using the results of a complex statistical analysis?


Who is your audience? An eighth grade civics class? A group of legislators who need to be briefed on an issue? A panel of scientific experts?

Address these two fundamental questions early in the writing process to guide your choice of vocabulary, depth, length, and style, as well as the selection of appropriate tools for communicating quantitative information. Throughout this book, I return often to issues about audience and objectives as they relate to specific aspects of writing about numbers.


Writing about numbers is more than simply plunking a number or two into a sentence. You may want to provide a general image of a pattern or you may need specific, detailed information. Sometimes you will be reporting a single number, other times many numbers. Just as a carpenter selects among different tools depending on the job, those who write about numbers have an array of tools to use for different purposes. Some tools do not suit certain jobs, whether in carpentry (e.g., welding is not used to join pieces of wood), or in writing about numbers (e.g., a pie chart cannot be used to show trends). And just as there may be several appropriate tools for a task in carpentry (e.g., nails, screws, glue, or dowels to fasten together wooden components), in many instances any of several tools could be used to present numbers.

There are three basic tools in a writer's toolkit for presenting quantitative information: prose, tables, and charts.


Numbers can be presented as a couple of facts or as part of a detailed description of an analytic process or findings. A handful of numbers can be described in a sentence or two, whereas a complex statistical analysis can require a page or more. In the main body of the text, numbers are incorporated into full sentences. In slides, in the executive summary of a report, or on an information kiosk, numbers may be included in a bulleted list, with short phrases used in place of complete sentences. Detailed background information is often given in footnotes (for a sentence or two) or appendixes (for longer descriptions).


Tables use a grid to present numbers in a predictable way, guided by labels and notes within the table. A simple table might present high school graduation rates in each of several cities. A more complicated table might show relationships among three or more variables such as graduation rates by city over a 20-year period, or results of one or more statistical models analyzing graduation rates. Tables are often used to organize a detailed set of numbers in appendixes, to supplement the information in the main body of the work.


There are pie charts, bar charts, and line charts and the many variants of each. Like tables, charts organize information into a predictable format: the axes, legend, and labels of a well-designed chart lead the audience through a systematic understanding of the patterns being presented. Charts can be simple and focused, such as a pie chart of the distribution of current market share across the major Internet service providers. Or, they can be complex, such as "high/low/close" charts illustrating stock market activity across a week or more.

As an experienced carpenter knows, even when any of several tools could be used for a job, often one of those options will work better in a specific situation. If there will be a lot of sideways force on a joint, glue will not hold well. If your listening audience has only 30 seconds to grasp a numerical relationship, a complicated table will be overwhelming. If kids will be playing floor hockey in your family room, heavy-duty laminated flooring will hold up better than parquet. If your audience needs many detailed numbers, a table will organize those numbers better than sentences.

With experience, you will learn to identify which tools are suited to different aspects of writing about numbers, and to choose among the different workable options. Those of you who are new to writing about numbers can consider this book an introduction to carpentry-a way to familiarize yourself with the names and operations of each of the tools and the principles that guide their use. Those of you who have experience writing about numbers can consider this a course in advanced techniques, with suggestions for refining your approach and skills to communicate quantitative concepts more clearly and systematically.


When writing about numbers, help your readers see where those numbers fit into the story you are telling-how they answer some question you have raised. A naked number sitting alone and uninterpreted is unlikely to accomplish its purpose. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence or thesis statement, then provide evidence that supports or refutes that statement. A short newspaper article on wages might report an average wage and a statistic on how many people earn the minimum wage. Longer, more analytic pieces might have several paragraphs or sections, each addressing a different question related to the main topic. A report on wage patterns might report overall wage levels, then examine how they vary by educational attainment, work experience, and other factors. Structure your paragraphs so your audience can follow how each section and each number contributes to the overall scheme.

To tell your story well, you, the writer, need to know why you are including a given fact or set of facts in your work. Think of the numbers as the answer to a word problem, then step back and identify (for yourself) and explain (to your readers) both the question and the answer. This approach is much more informative for the reader than encountering a number without knowing why it is there. Once you have identified the objective and chosen the numbers, convey their purpose to your readers. Provide a context for the numbers by relating them to the issue at hand. Does a given statistic show how large or common something is? How small or infrequent? Do trend data illustrate stability or change? Do those numbers represent typical or unusual values? Often, numerical benchmarks such as thresholds, historical averages, highs, or lows can serve as useful contrasts to help your readers grasp your point more effectively: compare current average wages with the "living wage" needed to exceed the poverty level, for example.


Writing about numbers is an iterative process. Initial choices of tools may later prove to be less effective than some alternative. A table layout may turn out to be too simple or too complicated, or you may conclude that a chart would be preferable. You may discover as you write a description of the patterns in a table that a different table layout would highlight the key findings more efficiently. You may need to condense a technical description of patterns for a research report into bulleted statements for an executive summary, or simplify them into charts for a speech or a compendium of annotated figures such as a chartbook.

To increase your virtuosity at writing about numbers, I introduce a wide range of principles and tools to help you plan the most effective way to present your numbers. I encourage you to draft tables and charts with pencil and paper before creating the computerized version, and to outline key findings before you describe a complex pattern, allowing you to separate the work into distinct steps. However, no amount of advance analysis and planning can envision the perfect final product, which likely will emerge only after several drafts and much review. Expect to have to revise your work, along the way considering the variants of how numbers can be presented.


How This Book Is Unique

Writing about numbers is a complex process: it involves finding pertinent numbers, identifying patterns, calculating comparisons, organizing ideas, designing tables or charts, and finally, writing prose. Each of these tasks alone can be challenging, particularly for novices. Adding to the difficulty is the final task of integrating the products of those steps into a coherent whole while keeping in mind the appropriate level of detail for your audience. Unfortunately, these steps are usually taught separately, each covered in a different book or course, discouraging authors from thinking holistically about the writing process.

This book integrates all of these facets into one volume, pointing out how each aspect of the process affects the others; for instance, the patterns in a table are easier to explain if that table was designed with both the statistics and writing in mind. An example will work better if the objective, audience, and data are considered together. By teaching all of these steps in a single book, I encourage alternating perspectives between the "trees" (the tools, examples, and sentences) and the "forest" (the main focus of your work, and its context). This approach will yield a clear, coherent story about your topic, with numbers playing a fundamental but unobtrusive role.

What This Book Is Not

Although this book deals with both writing and numbers, it is neither a writing manual nor a math or statistics book. Rather than repeating principles that apply to other types of writing, I concentrate on those that are unique to writing about numbers and those that require some translation or additional explication. I assume a solid grounding in basic expository writing skills such as organizing ideas into a logical paragraph structure and using evidence to support a thesis statement. For good general guides to expository writing, see Strunk and White (1999) or Zinsser (1998). Other excellent resources include Lanham (2000) for revising prose, and Montgomery (2003) for writing about science.

I also assume a good working knowledge of elementary quantitative concepts such as ratios, percentages, averages, and simple statistical tests, although I explain some mathematical or statistical issues along the way. See Kornegay (1999) for a dictionary of mathematical terms, Utts (1999) or Moore (1997) for good introductory guides to statistics, and Schutt (2001) or Lilienfeld and Stolley (1994) on study design. Those of you who write about multivariate analyses might prefer the more advanced version of this book; see Miller (forthcoming).

How This Book Is Organized

This book encompasses a wide range of material, from broad planning principles to specific technical details. The first section of the book, "Principles," lays the groundwork, describing a series of basic principles for writing about numbers that form the basis for planning and evaluating your writing about numbers. The next section, "Tools," explains the nuts-and-bolts tasks of selecting, calculating, and presenting the numbers you will describe in your prose. The final section, "Pulling It All Together," demonstrates how to apply these principles and tools to write full paragraphs, sections, and documents, with examples of writing for, and speaking to, both scientific and nonscientific audiences.


Excerpted from The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers by JANE E. MILLER Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Tables
List of Figures
List of Boxes
1. Why Write about Numbers?
Part I. Principles
2. Seven Basic Principles
3. Causality, Statistical Significance, and Substantive Significance
4. Technical but Important: Five More Basic Principles
Part II. Tools
5. Types of Quantitative Comparison
6. Creating Effective Tables
7. Creating Effective Charts
8. Choosing Effective Examples and Analogies
Part III. Pulling It All Together
9. Writing about Distributions and Associations
10. Writing about Data and Methods
11. Writing Introductions, Results, and Conclusions
12. Speaking about Numbers
Appendix A. Implementing "Generalization, Example, Exceptions" (GEE)
Reference List

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