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Running the numbers

Writing is about words, right? Well, of course – but numbers also have the power to trip a writer up, and not just because you don’t think you’re mathematically gifted.

Consider a speech I was reviewing on this week, where the speechwriter had the speaker talking about ‘several vital issues’, then saying the first one was X, and then going on to another train of thought entirely. Your audience (or reader, if it’s a written text) is left wondering what happened to all of the other vital issues.

So, when you’re reviewing something you’ve written, it’s worth paying special attention to the numbers. Have you said, for example, that there are three ways to solve a problem and only mentioned two – or four? If you’ve written paragraphs that start with ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’ and so on, do those numbers flow in sequence? (And if you prefer ‘firstly’, then make sure you use ‘-ly’ all the way for consistency.)

Finally, if you’ve entered any actual figures – whether in the text, or into graphs or tables – it pays to go through them with a fine-tooth comb and ensure they’re accurate. It’s very easy to swap numbers around when you’re entering them, or to leave out the decimal, or add or omit a zero when there are several. Even dates need a check – so that you don’t type 1892 when you mean 1982.

Writing is about words, yes, but the words are just tools to communicate. We write about all kinds of things – including numbers – so it’s worth giving them some attention to ensure they’re accurate and don’t confuse the reader or listener.

I like to remind my students that great transactional writing doesn’t furrow the reader’s brow. It’s clear, accurate and brief, and can be understood with the minimum of effort. Running the numbers will help with that goal.


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