Consider the difference:
“Wages at the 95th percentile grew by 4.5% last year, while the median increase was just 1%.”
“Workers earning the highest salaries saw a 4.5% increase, while the typical worker saw an increase of just 1%.”
While the meaning of both of these statements is the same, most would agree the second is easier to understand. Yet so often ledes drag us through several lines of clunky clauses choked up with percentages, units of measurement, and numerical phrases requiring readers to do some light math. “Work for your knowledge!” writers demand while readers are dropping like flies.
We may consider ourselves skilled wordsmiths able to seamlessly blend several facts and figures with our verbosity, but it may not be the best way to approach writing readable content. What good is putting an article out into the reader universe if our desired audience is unable to understand it? As writers, rather than serving our readers a bowl of number soup, we should be making those numbers easier to digest.
The Problem With Jumbling Numbers
In their 2022 study, “Number Soup,” a group of scientists, writers, educators, and media representatives analyzed 230 U.S. news articles covering economics, health, science, and politics to create case studies of quantitatively dense news. According to the researchers, the tendency to resort to “numerism” — an overriding faith in the objectivity of numbers — is widespread among journalists. But an overdependence on numbers to tell a story can confuse readers and drive them away.
Some of the worst number jumblers were those covering economic or health topics — ongoing events that journalists would want their readers to understand. Considering the articles they analyzed came out during 2020, it’s little wonder many Americans are still confused about COVID-19 variants, health risks, and current metrics, such as rates of hospitalizations and death. Increasingly partisan media are also jumbling numbers to shape people’s economic views into “what their politics say should be happening” rather than their own experiences. If a writer aims to inform, excessive “numerism” is hurting their cause.
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Inform Better, Not Less
The researchers suggest not taking out all numbers or reducing the quantity of information given but framing it in a way that allows more readers to understand. Here are five ways they suggest:
- Give more detail about the research methods. For example, the “Number Soup” study used a data management, excerpting, coding, and analysis platform Dedoose to assign codes to each news article based on the number of constituent clauses and literacy levels required to understand it. The more codes assigned, the more quantitatively dense they determined the article to be. When we give readers more detail about the source of complex number sets, they better understand what they mean.
- Write shorter, clearer sentences. The study found more numbers in an article often correlated with grammatical complexity and multiple clauses. Exclusive of content, these articles would already be difficult for more readers to understand. The biggest source of number dumping was found in the news story’s lede, or first line — the key to grabbing and keeping a reader’s attention. Most articles had at least some individual clauses or paragraphs stuffed so full of numbers that readers might find the content inaccessible and turn them off reading the remainder of the article.
- Provide context behind numbers. We might throw numbers into an article to prove scientifical objectivity, impartiality, and therefore fairness, but our numbers may not always speak for themselves. Let’s say workers earning the highest salaries saw a 4.5% wage increase, while for the average worker that increase was only 1%. More context would explain if this happened before the pandemic or after, if this is a national rate or regional, or what kind of workers this survey considered. With added context, the reader can more accurately apply those numbers to line up with their reality.
- Be transparent when numbers may be uncertain. Tea tree oil may clear up acne. Lemon oil may reduce agitation in patients with dementia. Thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedarwood oils may be able to treat alopecia areata or hair loss. It’s worth mentioning that no study on essential oils has made it to clinical trials, and no evidence-backed research shows aromatherapy can cure any illnesses. With all of the variables affecting dietary nutrition and the unpredictability of extract concentration, studies are unable to isolate the exact cause and effect of essential oils. If I choose to write on that topic, I have a responsibility to be transparent about the conclusivity of those numbers so my readers can figure out where they stand.
- Indicate areas where consensus lies. I may want to write an article on a study supporting a miracle diet eating only beef livers that can reverse climate change (I assure you, as a nutrition coach and environmentalist, I do not want to write that), but in this example, I should be sure to include that the current scientific consensus says otherwise. Misleading numbers are worse than too many because they detract from the integrity of the message by relying on misinformation. Especially when taking on controversial opinions, readers deserve an authentic representation of the support (or lack of) behind it.
Make Numbers Serve Your Readers
Numbers serve a valuable purpose in quantifying events objectively, but writers are responsible for crafting them so they achieve that goal. Qualitatively dense clauses at the beginning of an article should include newsworthy numbers to grab a reader’s attention; later on, they should support the larger story. Instead of forcing our readers to choke down flagrant “numerism” and excluding those who “just don’t get it,” consider the structure, each sentence, and each data figure included and use wordsmithery to make it easier for more people to understand.