Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writing, logic and numbers (4)

Part of clear writing is the clear use of logic and numbers. Whenever we include numbers in our copy, we should clearly and logically define the context of the numbers. If we don’t provide enough context, our readers won’t understand what the numbers mean.


For example, the author of an August 13 article about a revamp of an employee intranet provides insufficient context.

The first mention of numbers is in Paragraph 2:

“Within the first week of its launch in April last year, more than half of all public service employees in British Columbia flocked to their new, souped-up social intranet, @Work, logging 16,000 unique visits.”

We readers silently ask, “More than half of how many employees?”

To answer this question, we have to look ahead three paragraphs, to Paragraph 5, in which the author tells us that “[t]he intranet @Work serves 30,000 public service employees…”

With this information, we return to Paragraph 2, notice that 16,000 is indeed “more than half” of 30,000, and guess that, by “more than half,” the author means 16,000 of 30,000. If that guess is correct, then the author should have written something like this:

“Within the first week of its launch in April last year, 16,000 employees, more than half of the Province’s 30,000 employees, flocked…”

We readers wonder: Did the author assume that 16,000 unique visits represent 16,000 unique visitors? This assumption may be incorrect.

Later in Paragraph 2, the author writes:

“By month’s end, double the number of staff had entered the online fray…”

This is an implied comparison; during one period, the number of staff who “had entered the online fray” was double the number who had entered during an earlier period. But the author has not clearly defined either period.

She defines the more-recent period ambiguously: “by month’s end.” Does she mean the period from the day the new intranet was launched through the end of that calendar month (this period would equal one full month in duration only if the launch was on April 1)? Or does she mean one month’s duration, starting on the day of the launch (for example, starting on April 19 and ending on May 19)?

She does not define the earlier of the two periods. Does she mean the first week of the new intranet, as mentioned earlier in the paragraph? Or does she mean the last month of the old intranet? Or the entire life of the old intranet? Or something else?

Then we receive a clue:

“…leaving twice as many comments than [sic] they had [left] on the previous site.”

This implies that the earlier period was the entire life of the old intranet. But we readers cannot know that for sure without clearer language from the author.

The Takeaway: When your copy includes numbers, make sure you clearly and logically define the context of the numbers. For example, when comparing performance results, make sure you carefully define the periods you are comparing. If you don’t provide enough context, your readers won’t understand what the numbers mean. Your argument may seem sloppy or specious – undermining your credibility.

See disclaimer.

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