Let’s talk about how to use numbers in your writing!
“Hooooo boy,” you might be thinking. “I thought being a writer got me out of all that numbers stuff.”
Well, take my hand then, friend. It’s going to be okay. Adding relevant numbers and statistics can not only strengthen your writing and it doesn’t even have to hurt.
And don’t worry. I am not trying to convince you to moonlight as a statistician or to write only Buzzfeed-worthy top 10 lists. Not at all. No word lovers will be harmed during the course of this blog post.
But sounds like you might need some convincing that adding a dash of numbers to your writing will be a good thing. Happy to oblige.
Adding numbers and statistics to your writing, when appropriate, can bring big benefits, such as:
A recent New York Times article about the Uber versus yellow taxi battle in the city opened this way:
“The center serving drivers of New York’s yellow taxis is 3,000 square feet. The center serving the city’s Uber drivers is 30,000 square feet.”
Boom! In two sentences and with just two numbers the author delivered substantial context for the issue she is about to describe. Imagine the many different ways she could have written a similar lede without the numbers. Saying the center serving Uber drives dwarfs the center serving driver of yellow taxis just doesn’t have the same impact.
We produce a staggering amount of online content. But not all content is consumed equally. Chartbeat found that 55% of web readers spent 15 seconds or less on a page. Numbers among text – like those in the last sentence – jump out at readers and can increase their engagement.
I am a skeptical reader. You probably have a few of those in your audience or you might be one yourself. If you tell me that a dishwasher or hip modern plant stand is amazing and I should totally buy it, you’d better have some information to back that up. Numbers can be a great way to do that.
You could do this by using numbers to demonstrate quality. Such as letting me know that the dishwasher has three dish racks, 30% more room than standard dishwashers and emits only a whisper of 30 decibels when it’s working. Now I’m paying attention.
Numbers also convey concrete information, which also helps gain a reader’s trust. That plant stand? It has three legs, stands two feet tall and carries up to 15 pounds. Now that’s a lot of cactus.
Framing details with numbers can create memorable and share-worthy chunks. A few years ago, the freight company CSX ran ads on NPR and elsewhere that packed three numbers into one genius sentence:
“CSX, moving a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel.”
Every time I heard that I thought, “Wow!” And even though I would otherwise have absolutely no interest in freight (WHATSOEVER), I was kind of interested. A colleague even mentioned the ad randomly, saying, “Did you know….” And now here I am, using it as an example in my current work. That’s the power of numbers, folks.
So now you are feeling: “Numbers are what has been missing from my life and writing!”
Happy to hear it.
When we write, we want to bring our reader along with us. Numbers can give us a common, engaging and memorable reference point from which to build an idea.
So how do you do it? As promised, it’s really not too hard.
Sometimes you might have numbers or statistics teed up for you. Like if you are writing about the top 10 best-selling books of all time and how many people have read them. In other cases, you’ll need to think creatively to bring numbers into the fold.
A tiger escaped from the zoo, you say? How much does that tiger weigh? How high was the fence she jumped over to escape? Could you tell me how many zoo keepers were dispatched to track down the fugitive feline?
I’m not talking about adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers. But, as we’ve discussed, adding relevant numerical details can add depth to your writing.
Whether numbers are a necessary or more creative part of your writing, there is a secret sauce that you need to add to ensure these numbers pull their weight in your writing: context. Without context to anchor them, numbers will just float about without packing a punch. Relating something less known to something familiar will not only help make your point, but it’s an opportunity to get creative.
Returning to our tiger on the loose, describing the cat as weighing 450 pounds will certainly tell readers that it’s big. But telling them that, “the tiger weighs 450 pounds, or the equivalent of two NFL linebackers” will paint an even more detailed picture of this fierce beast.
Especially consider adding relatable context for very small or large numbers, or if number is abstract. To do this, think of everyday items or experiences that many people can relate to. Is it longer or shorter than a pencil? Is it more or less than an average grocery bill? Would it fit inside a house? Fire up your trusty search engine and see what interesting comparisons you can find.
And now, with your determination to use relevant numbers and your secret context sauce, I deem you a unicorn among writers!
If you want a little more help with writing, like how to find your voice, write kickass emails, greet people and sign off in non-yawn-inducing ways AND OTHER AMAZING STRATEGIES, I highly recommend you check out the free resource library below. You are unlikely to be sorry. I mean, you might be. But it’s unlikely.
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