The Numbers Game

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A little while back I wrote a post about how to save yourself money … just a few hints about how you can polish your manuscript before dealing with your editor.

This week I felt I could expand on it a little with one more step that can save you money and will make your editor very happy (well, it at least makes me happy).

One thing that can, and indeed often does, make my life an absolute misery is the appearance of numbers in manuscripts. Now this happens way more with non-fiction than with fiction, but is equally important whichever genre you work in.

Imagine:

A 95,000 word manuscript (perhaps even written by more than one author).

No thought goes into how the numbers are styled (the author is too busy with the writing, getting the story down on ‘paper’).

One paragraph mentions the three bears, then a few pages in 3 Bears make an appearance.

Throughout the book ten, eleven and twenty-three are intermingled with 10, 11, 23, one-thousand vies for attention with 1000, but 1,000 butts its head in there too. By the end of the manuscript every conceivable way of writing numbers has been attempted.

Then the author gives the manuscript to an editor who silently weeps into their tea.

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OK, it’s not the end of the world, and your editor can sort it out for you, but it can take ages. Yes, there are tricks of the trade that can help an editor when dealing with numbers, but without a style guide you can find yourself second-guessing, going back and re-reading, then changing your mind five or six times.

Handy hint: When writing your manuscript get yourself a piece of paper (yup, don’t forget I’m old school) and have it with you when you write. Decide how you want your numbers to look (along with any spelling variations etc.), write your decisions down, then stick to them.

It’s really not as difficult as it sounds. Forget professional style guide and whatever your dictionary of choice says if need be. Decide how YOU want your numbers to look, it’s your book after all, as long as you are consistent all will be well. Consistency is key. Should you want to be professional though use words for small numbers, say below 10, then figures for anything over. There are a few exceptions, such as the beginnings of sentences should ideally be written out, and exact measurements and series of quantities, where there are both small and large numbers in the same sentence, should be figures, (e.g. the teacher bought 9 ice creams for 14 children, what a stingy man). But if this confuses you that’s totally fine, your editor will weed out the little inconsistencies.

Building yourself a style guide, however simple, will help you when you are writing and your editor when they are editing for you.

Here’s a daft example:

1000 years ago, in a land far, far away there was a race of beings who loved numbers. When a child was between the ages of 7 and nine, he was taken to an ancient citadel where the forefathers of one-thousand years before had inscribed important words. These words, read aloud every three weeks by an acolyte, who must have attained the age of fifty, and who was at least six feet tall, told of the ancient race’s beginnings. Etched into the stone, in letters 3 storeys high, were the words ‘spell to 9, then figures thereafter, fill the world with fun and laughter.’ The children invariably found this hysterical and, being released back to their families, would gather in groups of fifty or more to make fun of their elders and the twenty-seven minor rules they were meant to memorise.

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Using a style guide that notes words spelled to nine, then figures thereafter, the paragraph would be changed to:

One-thousand years ago, in a land far, far away there was a race of beings who loved numbers. When a child was between the ages of seven and nine, he was taken to an ancient citadel where the forefathers of 1,000 years before had inscribed important words. These words, read aloud every three weeks by an acolyte, who must have attained the age of 50, and who was at least 6 ft tall, told of the ancient race’s beginnings. Etched into the stone, in letters three storeys high, were the words ‘spell to nine, then figures thereafter, fill the world with fun and laughter.’ The children invariably found this hysterical and, being released back to their families, would gather in groups of 50 or more to make fun of their elders and the 27 minor rules they were meant to memorise.*

OK, it’s a silly example, but you get the gist. Imagine a whole manuscript full of discrepancies. Being consistent from the beginning makes less work for you and your editor in the long-run. Your editor will thank you for it.

*I really hope my creative writing tutor never sees this!

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