Writing numbers seems pretty straight forward—seems being the operative word. In reality, numbers have some important guidelines in writing, and following those guidelines can make a world of difference when it comes to clarity, cleanness, and professionalism. Here are three cardinal tips for writing numbers:
- Don’t just assume. Don’t assume you should spell out a number. Likewise, don’t assume you should use a numeral. Instead, take the time to consider which way is best, given the audience, context, size of the number, and need for preciseness. If you don’t get direction on how to treat numbers, consult a style manual or grammar guide. Putting a little effort into your writing—even for the simple things, like writing numbers—will make your work that much better.
- Avoid too many. Numbers are great for citing facts and figures, making comparisons, and providing key details. But too many numbers, whether spelled out or in numeral form, can clutter up a page and disrupt the flow of the words. Sometimes numbers can be substituted by words that imply quantity, like many, numerous, and a multitude. In fact, sometimes it’s better not to be so precise with numbers: 985 people might be better expressed as “nearly a thousand.”
- Be consistent. If you’re following a guideline from a certain style book, an editor, or your own choosing, keep at it throughout the entirety of the piece. Don’t suddenly switch gears and spell out numbers when you’ve been using numerals thus far—unless there’s a good reason, such as spelling out a number at the beginning of a sentence or when two numbers appear side-by-side (i.e., six 14-year-olds). Generally, consistency trumps correctness when it comes to writing numbers.
Remember, numbers are important in writing. But they should complement words, not stick out like sore digits.
For more on writing numbers and other style issues, check out my e-book No Average Writer.