2, four, 6, eight: What a difference consistency makes!

Publishers follow consistency standards so their readers know what to expect and won’t get confused. But what if those standards are stumbling blocks to clarity?

That’s the question raised by some BBC coverage of the constantly changing (and consistently confusing) political situation in the United Kingdom right now. BBC’s streaming content Monday included a list of former prime ministers and their tenures. The entire stream is available here, but a partial list follows (I’ve bolded the relevant points):

James Callaghan 1976-79 (three years, 29 days)
Margaret Thatcher 1979-90 (11 years, 209 days)
John Major 1990-97 (six years, 154 days)
Tony Blair 1997-2007 (10 years, 56 days)
Gordon Brown 2007-10 (two years, 319 days)
David Cameron 2010-16 (six years, 60 days as of today)

The BBC’s own internal guidebook for consistency (similar to the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard bearer for the U.S. news industry) dictates that numbers one through nine should be written out, while larger numbers starting with 10 should be written using numerals. The reporter was apparently following this rule Monday when compiling the list above.

But alternating between numerals and written-out numbers was enough to prompt Liz Eden, an Oxford resident and friend of mine, to complain on social media (partly out of frustration with the presentation of data, partly out of frustration over the general turbulence over there this month).

“Having a mixture of words and digits for writing out numbers doesn’t help readability,” she wrote.

And I’d have to agree.

This material is presented in a bulleted format specifically so a reader can scan quickly and compare how long each prime minister served. As such, the information could have been presented more clearly if the term lengths had all been listed numerically, regardless of length.

“Three, 11, six, 10, two, six” isn’t as easy to visually process as “3, 11, 6, 10, 2, 6.”

This reminds me of a head-to-head I had with my editor over a decade ago while working at a Gannett newspaper in New Jersey. I had just interviewed a young girl and her father who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and wanted to open up the story as follows:

BOUND BROOK – A few numbers to consider:

During a course of 7 days, Jenna Nerger hiked 62 miles through 5 climates to a height of 18,650 feet.

And she’s 11.

Because my lead focused on the impressive statistics, I had pushed the AP Stylebook aside and written all those stats using numerals. My editor, ever loyal to the spiral-bound bible of the newspaper world, insisted that 7 and 5 be spelled out in accordance with style. I passionately made my case (“Sometimes you need to bend the rules for poetic license; that’s what makes this an art that connects us with our readers!”), and she eloquently made hers (“No.”), so the story went to press with a combination of numerals and written numbers.

But looking at what the BBC posted Monday, I notice one key difference between their story and mine that demonstrates why I needed to stick to the rules but the BBC should have strayed from theirs.

In my story, each number measured something different (time, distance, climates, height, age). In the BBC story, each number applied to years, measuring the same unit. It was written for the clear purpose of comparison; therefore, a consistent way of expressing the numbers would have better served that purpose.

Are readers over the age of 8 – I’m sorry; eight – capable of understanding the list anyway? Of course.

But the British government is confusing enough right now, and poor Liz already has a headache; why complicate things further?


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Begin the writing now, but write the beginning later

I don’t care what you’ve heard; the very beginning is often a horrible place to start ‑ at least for writers.

Inexperienced writers may feel the need to write the first paragraph… first. The problem, though, is that this paragraph can be the hardest one; whether you’re writing a story, a letter, an essay, or virtually anything else, you need it to hook the reader and get your piece off to a strong start, so there’s a lot of pressure in the opening.

So skip it. Write the hook once your creative juices have had a chance to start flowing. Your hook will be better, and the reader will never notice the difference.

This has happened to you: You tried to remember the name of an actor, restaurant, or guy you went to high school with. You got frustrated and gave up. Later in the day, out of the blue, that name came charging to the front of your brain because there was still a piece of your brain digging through the archives to find that bit of trivia, even after you’ve stopped actively trying to remember.

A good intro to your writing can work the same way. Try to come up with a great hook. Can’t? No problem. Stop wasting time obsessing over it, and start writing the next part. Write the ending. Bounce around the middle. Just get writing.

At some point, when you’re in the middle of a body paragraph or a bathroom break, that hook you’ve been looking for will magically appear. Drop it into place at the beginning, adjust the rest of your piece accordingly, and you’ve crafted a smooth intro that was fashionably late but fit right in. Do it right, and your reader will never know the difference.

Case in point: I’ve rewritten the first paragraph of this blog post eight times. You never noticed, did you?


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.