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    10 Ways to Play the Numbers Game and Win

    Editors and readers seem to have an insatiable appetite for numbers. As writers, it's our job to whet that appetite by delivering stories that either provide lists or analyze numbers to tell stories. Those numbers are woven into the fabric of a story to solidify it and set it apart from other submissions on the editor's desk.

    No. 1: Use lists to catch attention

    Look in any magazine rack or bookshelf and you will see lists everywhere. "Seven Ways to*, 10 Reasons to*, 101 Best*, etc." If you read Writer's Digest you understand exactly what I am talking about. That magazine lives by lists. For example, I found four random back issues of Writer's Digest in my office. A close analysis found that in a random sampling of 25 percent of the issues published by Writer's Digest in 2002, 100 percent of them prominently displayed a minimum of two list-related stories on the cover.

    This is a book that helps writers in their quest to get published. If its editors are teaching through example, they are reinforcing their point in bold letters. Editors love lists. They also like numbers that add depth to stories.


    No. 2: Incorporate numbers often

    There are many other ways to incorporate numbers in your stories. I recommend using them whenever possible, because they can add substance to a point you are trying to make. Allow numbers to confirm your assertions. Statistics and percentages tell stories when used effectively in concert with good sentences. But, be careful about which numbers you use.


    No. 3: Understand the numbers first

    If you are quoting recent research, make sure it is reliable and that you understand the material. Too often, writers regurgitate statistics from studies out of context, thus distorting the facts. Likewise, if you quote an expert who mentions numbers or percentages, ask the source where the number came from. If you can't independently confirm it, don't use it.


    No. 4: Interpret the numbers in plain English

    Careful analysis and interpretation of researched statistics is critical to the effective writing. You have to relay in plain English what the numbers mean to the audience.

    For example, in an earlier paragraph, I made a point about Writer's Digest using list-oriented stories. I added depth and confirmed that point by using numbers. I took a study and highlighted what I needed to make a point. The numbers told the story effectively because of my interpretation of them.


    No. 5: Avoid overuse

    I also caution you not to overly rely on numbers and statistics. If you have an overabundance of numbers in your copy, you not only weaken the ability of the text to tell a story, but you also diminish the impact any graphics or charts might have on readers. Numbers should compliment a story, not strangle it. There is no formula for the percentage of your story that should or shouldn't include numbers. Only the writer can determine how important the numbers are to the story.


    No. 6: Make the challenge fun

    I have had to write in-depth magazine stories that were based entirely on the numbers from a survey. This was a monumental challenge. Yes, it is meticulous to scour through sheets upon sheets of numbers, but it doesn't have to be a boring exercise.

    Approach it with the thought of learning something new about the topic, or hit it as if you were trying to put a puzzle together. You pick the method whatever works for you. Just make it fun. Think of the research as the mountain that you must conquer.


    No. 7: Seek absolute quiet

    Then, I found, the best way to tackle numbers-heavy material is to find absolute quiet. Interruptions can destroy a thought process and easily lead to poor analysis of the information. I usually find a place far away from the kids so I can focus. With a recent numbers-laden feature, I took six hours on a Sunday in my office and hammered out a first draft.

    Even for those of you who listen to radios while you work or leave the television on, you need to find somewhere quiet. The integrity of your interpretation is at stake.


    No. 8: Refresh the editor in you

    Once you complete your rough draft of a numbers-oriented story, walk away. Play with the kids, handle some e-mails, run around the park or whatever. These are great ways to clear your head and recharge your batteries. When you return to the computer, you will be refreshed and ready to look at the story from a different perspective.

    This time, you are the editor looking for mistakes. While self-editing you should look closely for numbers that don't look right or fail to make a point. You should be critical of the numbers and how they fit into the story. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is everything left in the story necessary?


    No. 9: Get a second opinion

    Once you answer those questions, let a trusted friend or spouse read your story. My wife isn't a writer, but she always catches things I miss. She is the objective observer. Her opinion is most important because she represents the reader, or the editor. She hasn't been staring at sheets of numbers, so she can provide a new perspective.


    No. 10: Highlight numbers in your pitch

    Once you are pleased with the story, make sure you make the numbers prominent in your pitch to an editor. It just might be the differentiating factor when an editor decides on stories.

    For example, if I were pitching this story to Shery Ma Belle E. Arrieta at the e-Writer's Place, I would certainly use the headline in the query. I would also mention my mini-study about Writer's Digest. The use of numbers in your writing hooks editors and readers, leaving them wanting more.

    Copyright © 2002 Joseph M. Kelly

    Joseph M. Kelly, who is editor of Electrical Contractor magazine in Bethesda, Md., and a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer, has been published in daily and weekly newspapers, national trade magazines, newsletters and online. His work has appeared in The Maryland Coast Dispatch, Hardware Age, Home Improvement Market, LBM Retailer, Garden Supply Retailer, Decorative Products Retailer, Outdoor Power Equipment, Association Publishing, Writing For Money, The Baltimore Press, The Enterprise, Electrical Contractor, AWritersLife.net, Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel, and several other publications.

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