Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers

Like a lot of writers and artists, I had an aversion to math when I was younger. Then, I took a statistics class in high school, and it changed the way I viewed the study of mathematics, its real-world application, and, perhaps most profoundly, my own ability to understand analytical concepts.

It sounds incredibly geeky, but once I learned the difference between mean, median and mode, and how frequently they’re confused, I never looked at statistics in a news report, election result, textbook chapter, or research paper in the same light.

Lately, I’ve read more than a handful of articles and press releases that misuse or leave out statistics gathered via surveys or studies.

As professional writers, we occasionally need to delve into the world of math and statistics. Whether you’re preparing a press release, writing an article for the company website, or reporting the news, your facts may rely on figures.

What you don’t want is to be associated with that old saying about lying with statistics. Your credibility rests on your transparency with numbers, especially when the goal is something like press coverage, promotion or a fact-driven news story.

Here are some basics for writing with numbers:

Include the number of subjects who participated in a survey or study
This figure is an absolute requirement (and I’ve seen it missing from more than three recent press releases or website posts in as many months). It is, after all, the starting point for any survey or study and it provides the reader with an ability to judge how relevant the data might be.

Note that in any study or survey there’s a percentage of answers or results that must be discarded: a participant chose not to answer one or more of the questions or results from a lab test were unclear. From a pool of 400 participants, a plus or minus error rate of 1 – 2 percent might be acceptable, but if only 10 people took the time to fill out a survey, even one incomplete or botched entry makes a huge difference to the quality of results.

Frankly, if the participating group is as small as 10, the survey or study probably doesn’t hold a lot of weight scientifically. This hasn’t stopped reporting of such results, but frequently what the reader isn’t told, because it would cast doubt on the validity of both the results and the assertions made about them, is how many people were in the study group.

In scientific and medical research, groups that small are often part of preliminary studies, which is why there is so much regulation around reporting findings that may not have any bearing on larger populations of patients.

Provide a breakdown of participant groups
The more details you provide, the more credible your story becomes. It doesn’t necessarily make the survey or study more credible, but you give your reader the ability to assess the information based on their own understanding of the subject and related facts.

Participant details (as long as you are sharing non-identifying, unconfidential information) can include things like gender, age group, political affiliation, economic strata, professional experience, blood type, etc.

Share types of questions asked, specific information or samples gathered from subjects
Certainly, there’ll be articles where this counts as too much detail, but in a scientific study it might be essential to understand that blood samples were taken within a certain time period following the administration of medication.

For surveys, sharing a greater level of detail comes in handy when highlighting a particularly notable response. Knowing the question helps the reader analyze the answers.

You get bonus points for including the scale used to score a survey (and for using more complex scales – five response options rather than two or three – when conducting a survey in the first place).

Be clear about the scope of findings
Avoid at all costs “universalizing” results. This is a mistake I see frequently. Unintentionally or not, extrapolating findings from the original study group to a large population (for example, using one exit poll to predict an election) misrepresents the scope of the results. It’s striving for a significance that isn’t there.

A survey or study has a specific number of participants; the findings refer to the original population, especially with only one study and no further research to verify the original results.

Results must be qualified with statements like “among people who took the survey,” “according to survey respondents,” “in the study,” and, for large studies, the data may need to be further broken down to percentages within the various subgroups (such as, “x% of the women/seniors, etc., in the study population experienced reactions”).

Avoid calling survey or study methodology “scientific”
Like extrapolating data, appending the word “scientific” to any old survey or study is striving for a kind of credibility the research may not have earned.

The scientific method has since the 17th century provided objective, measurable, repeatable standards and techniques for investigating subjects and gleaning new information. Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive explanation here, but suffice to say, if a study wasn’t conducted by an agency with no investment in the outcome (objective), didn’t start with a hypotheses against which results could be compared and contrasted, proved or disproved (measurable), and wasn’t repeated to ensure reliability of reporting, calling it “scientific” is a misuse of language. Speaking of which…

Understand key terms like “statistical significance”
The word “significant,” when attached to study data, does not translate as “key,” “momentous” or “important.”

“Statistically significant” is a phrase statisticians use when a result is “unlikely to have occurred by chance.” Which also doesn’t mean that it’s important simply because it’s unlikely. The unlikely result would need to be repeatable and measured through additional objective means (at the very least) in order to determine its real-world significance.

Do you have a mathematical pet peeve? What examples of exaggeration have you noticed when it comes to writing with numbers? Feel free to enumerate in the Comments.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”
~ Mark Twain, “Chapters from My Autobiography”

Do You Embrace Happy Accidents?

Maloof's “Happy Accident”: The hard edge.

I attended a lecture about fine furniture-maker Sam Maloof on Saturday, the Huntington Library and its botanical gardens a calm oasis after the ferment of BlogWorld.

Describing Maloof’s practice, Harold B. Nelson, curator of the elegant new exhibition “The House that Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley 1945 – 1985,” displayed a chair whose finish glowed like honey. Its lines seemed purposeful and true.

But, that purity was born from a mistake.

Maloof, who hand-carved many of his pieces, rather than use the lathe, was in his workshop one day, bringing life to a chairback. The Californians deviated from their east coast and European artistic colleagues by creating a rounded-over aesthetic. According to Nelson, as Maloof worked the wood, his hand slipped, carving a hard edge into the round-over.

Instead of chucking the chair, Maloof stood back to consider. Although it wasn’t what he’d meant to do, the hard edge added something to the soft line of the California round-over style. The hard edge, a “happy accident,” became part of the Maloof signature.

Now, you can bet that Maloof’s original accident didn’t look like the hard edge in that photo above. It could easily have been an ugly, squiggly gouge, a wound to the wood. It would’ve taken time to truly find the hard edge and perhaps even a few more accidents – happy or otherwise – before he perfected it.

The hallmark of an artist is the ability to see the potential and the willingness to let accidents happen.

We Need a Bigger Boat – and More Time

There are some classic stories of happy accidents in creative fields. One of the most famous is the failure of the mechanical shark during the filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Day after day on the watery sets around Martha’s Vineyard, “Bruce” the mechanical shark failed to slice through the waters on command – or he sank to the sandy bottom. Out of almost complete failure, Spielberg conjured cinematic magic: it was the unseen menace that created such breathtaking tension. Had Bruce swum back and forth across screen from scene to scene, the audience could have embraced his familiarity and relaxed. Not knowing – and letting the audience’s imagination take over – made “Jaws” far more powerful than seeing the shark.

Some happy accidents have become our apocryphal tales, like the one about Newton and the apple.

It takes patience to give space to possibilities like these. Patience and space require time, and that’s something many of us have precious little of these days whether we work in creative fields or corporate offices.

Still, happy accidents can be encountered as long as we’re in the frame of mind that embraces the idea that even mistakes teach us and sometimes turn out to be rather spectacular.

Have you discovered a happy accident in your writing or other creative work? How did it transform the final piece? What surprises did you encounter along the way? Do you think accidents are truly mistakes or just the creative mind searching for new possibilities? I’d love to hear what you think in the Comments section.

Forget Flat Abs in Seven Days, Can You Write a Novel in a Month?

NaNoWriMo commences bright and early on Nov. 1, giving us ink-stained wretches about two weeks to clear our schedules and say goodbye to loved ones.

For the uninitiated, November is National Novel Writing Month – a theme month whose acronym can make you feel like Mork from Ork when trying to explain to skeptical friends what’s caused you to shun sunshine, shopping and TV while holed up in your apartment for 30 days and nights.

There’s plenty of debate about what it’s possible to create in a month – and what of that might be salvageable for a later draft – but, the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, to keep your hand moving across the keyboard or page with nary a backward glance for editing or second guessing. “To write,” as the NaNoWriMo website puts it, “without having to obsess over quality.”

The endeavor encourages participants to start from scratch (rather than waste time agonizing over a partially developed outline or manuscript) and accept that almost every writer on the planet produces, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, crummy first drafts.

The NaNoWriMo website offers plenty of support, resources, advice and meet-ups in your area. It’s completely honest about expectations and the fact that you shouldn’t set yourself up to unleash the next Pride and Prejudice on the world come Nov. 30.

They understand how difficult it is for writers to shed the burdens of the workaday world and dedicate their schedules to creating – even if it is only a month. They’re realistic that at the end of 30 days, your spouse, partner, parents, children and/or boss are going to expect you to reappear and spend more time in their lives. But, they also believe that, if you’re a writer, one month isn’t too much to ask for.

The discipline it takes to write every day forms good habits and strengthens muscles we sometimes don’t even realize we have.

NaNoWriMo is kind of like the room of one’s own that writers need in order to imagine and create.

I’ve had good intentions in past years about doing NaNoWriMo, going so far as to make pacts with writer friends who planned to do it, too. One thing I’ve discovered about those previous (all unsuccessful) attempts was that the moment we let Day One slip by without churning out our 1,667 words (50,000 words divided by 30 days), we’d lost the game before it ever really got started.

I’ve also thought long and hard about whether it would be more helpful to bang out a novel in 30 days or to nail down one, fully realized short story. Perhaps NaShoStoWriMo is more my style. Because once you get in the habit of writing your own stuff, just for you, it’s a lot easier to keep going. And, after all, you can always designate any month of the year your personal NaNoWriMo, NaShoStoWriMo, NaPoWriMo (for poets), NaScreWriMo (screenwriters), NaBloWriMo (bloggers), etc., if November, with that pesky Tryptophan-laden, out-of-town-relative-packed holiday at the end of the month, doesn’t work for you.

So, NaShoStoWriMo is what I’ll be doing with my November evenings and weekends, when I’m not focused on clients.

How about you? Have you tried NaNoWriMo before? Are you tempted to join in this year? Have you ever given yourself a month (or six, or 12) to achieve something that really mattered to you? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Join the Short Story Tweetathon and Tell a Tale with Fewer than 700 (Twitter) Characters

For the past four Wednesdays, the Society of Authors has sponsored a short story tweetathon, giving willing writers about an hour to continue a tale begun by a published author, such as Sarah Waters, Simon Brett and Joanne Harris. This week, the opening line comes from author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman.

Once the guest curator has selected the winning contribution, it’s posted, and scribes have an hour to come up with the next line. And so on. The final story is available on the SoA website.

The final tweetathon starts tomorrow at 11 a.m. – that’s Greenwich Mean Time for folks based outside the U.K.

Contributors have less than the usual 140 Twitter characters, since the tweet must be submitted with the #soatale hashtag. Here, for example, is crime writer Ian Rankin’s Week 1 opener:

“I woke up on the floor of a strange bedroom, clutching a single bullet in my right hand. I couldn’t see any sign of a gun.” #soatale

SoA organized the tweetathon after the BBC made cuts to the amount of short stories aired during regular programming. As with cutbacks in magazines, like the Atlantic, this reduces the options for short story writers and restricts the exposure that readers might have to this important storytelling form, practiced by writers as varied as Tobias WolffHelen SimpsonErnest HemingwayLorrie Moore, and Ian McEwan, to name a very small handful.

For specifics on the tweetathon and SoA’s protest, visit the Society of Authors website.

Winning: What Awards Can Do for Your Career

Whether you write professionally or for your own satisfaction, you most likely at some point have considered entering your work in award programs or contests. (Awww, go on, you know you have.)

Later in September, I’ll offer tips and strategies for corporate writers interested in entering award programs sponsored by professional communications organizations. Today, a few thoughts on the value of validation and links to writing award programs, contests and fellowships for professional, fiction, nonfiction and screenplay/TV writers.

I’ve been on both sides of these equations: I’m a professional writer (going on three decades); I write short stories in my spare time and a novel is beginning to take form in the recesses of my computer; I’ve won awards from communications organizations as well as writing contests for my personal stuff; I’ve served as a judge for professional award programs.

I have a deep respect for people who believe that writing is its own reward whether someone else reads it or not, but I’m gonna have to admit it: my ego is not that highly evolved. A journal is the place where my unseen writing goes. Everything else I write not for self-aggrandizement, but with an audience and my own skill improvement in mind. It’s likely that writing professionally from the age of 19 has shaped my view that putting work out there for others to comment on teaches a writer more about writing and helps her or him learn how to incorporate feedback and grow more skilled and confident each time fingers hit the keyboard or pen touches paper.

As a result, I think awards and contests are beneficial for writers. Writing mostly happens in isolation: you, your mind, your computer. It’s a lovely boost to one’s confidence to receive acknowledgement for all your hard work. Some programs provide feedback, which is especially helpful and serves as a guide to the judging criteria for future entries.

Awards, Contests and Fellowships

For the writer or communicator who’s eager to find out where his or her work stands with respect to judging committees and colleagues in the industry, you’ll find links to programs below.

A quick word on entering your work into any program (I’ll expand on this further in my post later this month): read and follow the entry requirements to the letter. If, for whatever reason, your work doesn’t have the requested support materials (for example, a beat sheet for screenplay entries or some kind of audience survey for corporate communications pieces), there is no question your entry will lose points – often significant points, leaving it in the reject pile. When I first was asked to judge award programs, there was a bit of individual leeway if an entry was so well done that it would secure top place if it just had a bit more supporting material. Today, judging is based on numerical assignments for both content and execution – followed by some complex mathematical formulations that give me flashbacks to high school geometry class. In most cases, more than one judge reviews the material to eliminate bias.

It’s gut-wrenching when you read great writing, but have no support material to back it up, and have to eliminate entries from the competition. But, this will happen, and it’s better not to waste your money or the considerable time it takes to put together a winning entry by submitting something that doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the award or contest.

For corporate communicators: Organizations such as the International Association of Business Communicators and the Public Relations Society of America sponsor award programs that are respected in the industry. Most of the larger industry publications present awards, as well, including PR NewsPR Week, and Bulldog Reporter.

Novelists, short story writers, memoirists, literary-nonfiction writers: Rather than list every literary journal (and there are tens upon thousands!), I recommend subscribing to the Gotham Writers’ Workshops’ email newsletter. You’ll receive weekly updates on writing contests (and deadline reminders) for fiction and nonfiction writing.

For neighboring scribes in Hollywood: Likewise, there are numerous contests and most broadcast and cable networks offer development fellowships. There’s a terrific blog, “Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer,” which provides an excellent list of links for TV and screenwriting fellowships and contests in the right-hand column of resources.

Sorry, Charlie

“Winning” is not really what Charlie Sheen seems to think it is. It’s not about using your laurels as a chaise longue or a soapbox.

Certainly, there are some awards, like a Pulitzer, a Man Booker or an Oscar, that will change your life and significantly expand your career prospects. A Gold Quill may give you short-term bounce. From personal experience, the contests I’ve won for short stories and essays (which involved publication in an anthology) brought no reaction from anyone anywhere. The professional honors, however, brought me two bonafide job offers and probably gave my resume a slight edge over others for a few years. Awards look good on your bookshelf, too, but over time they gather dust like any other tchotchke.

This seems like an apropos time to talk about winning since the U.S. Open tennis tournament is on. When you watch a tournament match, you’re seeing a small percentage of the time a player puts in. Winning is but a brief moment; the rest is practice, conditioning, viewing scouting reports, some more practice, physical therapy, nutrition, and still more practice. The day after a championship win, a player goes back out on the practice court, works on everything that went wrong the day before, and goes through the same routine of practice, scouting, gym, and still more practice.

It’s no different for a writer. It’s our constant practice of the craft, and the effort to accrue more knowledge about the work we do, that occasionally brings accolades. And then, we sit down at our desks and try to do an even better job than the day before.

The 300-Word Opus (or Why Brief Isn’t Always Better)

I’m trying to fit a post into 300 words today. This is the word count a Corp Comm department recently placed on intranet news items (features receive an expansive 500), and I wanted to learn what’s possible in finite space.

Some things aren’t better in small doses. When have you ever said, “I wish there was less of that,” about a delectable dessert, your favorite film (this is, in fact, why sequels and film-franchise reboots exist), the first sunny afternoon after a hard winter, or a great book (“Yes, Miss Austen, I know it’s difficult to develop two characters plus their circle of family and friends, play out their misguided stubbornness, help them overcome their worst qualities so they can find their best and fall in love, but, really, don’t you think the headline ‘Pride and Prejudice’ says it all? Three hundred words should suffice.”)?

At the same time this department was asked to slice and dice content, they were informed it needed to incorporate more compelling storytelling, real-life examples, a vision for the future, and humor. (Presumably because humor is so frequently welcomed by corporate leaders and content reviewers, and especially appropriate when introducing new HR policies, but I digress and, at 203 words and counting, I can’t afford asides.)

I’m all for pithy. For three decades, I’ve counseled writers to be specific, edit closely, trust the exact meaning of a word to do the work and apply its bearing to a sentence. But, brevity for brevity’s sake doesn’t give employees weighty material – it can’t convey the detailed information that informs their work and improves understanding of the business environment or the direction of the company. And when have employees ever wanted less explanation about changes critical to their departments, pay or responsibilities?

Normally, I prefer to offer at least three practical tips that readers can use in their own work if they find them valuable. At 300 words, dear reader, that’s impossible, which means I leave out the How, as well as the Why.

Yikes, I’m at 340 Words! Time to Bring it on Home

Online and social media writing isn’t as different from the old print world as it’s made out to be. Word limits are a trend – we’ve seen this one before, it’ll surface from the swamp of bad advice when the next new channel is invented. It comes up because communications departments want to provide value, but struggle when employees don’t read internal communications (more on that here).

But, employees aren’t tuning out because content is long or because social media like Twitter are somehow training them for shorter content. Employees will take the time if content is of value to them and can be directly utilized in the context of their work – and when it makes them feel better about the company.

We do no great service to employees, or any reader, when we make arbitrary rules that reduce subject matter to headlines, limit the ability to provide sources (plural, because facts should be verified and readers need to know how much authority to grant sources), force us to skimp on explanations (in a tumultuous business environment, one of the most valuable things writers can do for employees is build the foundation and case for change while underscoring the culture’s values). Try doing that in 300 or 500 words.

Write clear. Write well. But, write the story whole.

(P.S. This blog post is 564 words. My point exactly.)

Mission Statement

I believe there’s no bad language, only unfortunate choices.

I have a passion for language that cuts through the cacophony we’ve created with thousands of channels and multiplying media options. My goal is writing that creates meaningful connections, greater understanding, a stronger sense of purpose about the work at hand.

With this blog, I’m hoping to explore writing that takes wing, messaging that hits home – the good stuff, and why and how it works. I hope you’ll share your examples and expertise as well because while writing is mainly a solitary task, it’s the sharing of writing that gives it meaning and develops our ability to do it well.

Even after several decades as a professional communicator, I still write first drafts that give me nightmares (and would make you cringe if they ever saw the light of day – maybe in a future post, I’ll work up the nerve to share a first draft and show how it evolved into something that someone felt was worthy of publishing), and I can’t write headlines to save my life (see “Mission Statement” above). But, I am driven by the belief that effective communication helps everyone at work as well as in life, and it’s why I spend so much time thinking about it and practicing at it.

I don’t know about you, but I still experience that inspiring frisson whenever I learn something new – about grammar, style, launching a blog, how to read between the hash tags on Twitter – and I hope always to get the same sense of giddiness when I discover great writing, whether it’s a headline in The Economist, a novel new or old, a website, the contents of a fortune cookie, or even in a press release.

What writing has inspired you? Did you post it to a blog or to the bulletin board over your desk? How did it change you or inspire you to take action – or not, depending on what you were reading?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
~ Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia”