Sunday, November 19, 2017

Editing Tip: 99% Perfect Writing

September 11, 2010 by Jane Ross  
Filed under Blog, Editing, Publishing, Self publishing

A guest blog post by editor Sofia Voloch

99percentHere’s a mistake I’ve noticed some writers making: using a statistic like “99%” to mean “the overwhelming majority, in my subjective experience.” Statistics like percentages and averages are viewed as facts by most readers because they seem scientific, leading readers to assume that they’re independently verifiable — that, if we’re given the data set that someone else used to calculate a statistic, and we do the math correctly, we’ll come up with the same number.

When you’re writing, it’s important not to mislead your audience by presenting something as a provable, scientific fact without any evidence. You can say “in my experience, 99%…” but that implies that you came up with that statistic by doing some math, not just a making a guess based on what you remember (especially since people have a demonstrated tendency to forget experiences that contradict their beliefs).

This becomes a real problem when you start mixing “99%” as an expression into a piece that also contains real statistics from real research. It’s confusing! Your audience has to stop and second-guess whether you literally mean 99 times out of 100, or just “the overwhelming majority of the time.” So, to anyone who regularly quotes statistics, I’m suggesting: find a different way to get your point across. You can still be hyperbolic—I think hyperbole is the best thing ever—but use a phrase like “almost always” so your audience can tell.

I honestly can’t think of a context in which using 99% as an expression is the best choice. Good alternatives are: “the overwhelming majority” and “almost always.” You can also try “usually,” “most,” “more,” “every day,” or “often.”

If you aren’t a technical writer, ask yourself why you’re going for a percentage at all — your topic is so much more than dry statistics. If you are a technical writer, is using this expression really worth the confusion it creates? I know I’ve been guilty of this mistake, and it may be hard to break the habit completely. As a first step, try using the context to make it clear that you don’t literally mean 99% by prefacing it with “it seems like” or another qualifying word or phrase.

I don’t have a problem with this in casual settings, although I try not to do it myself. Thinking about it, it’s actually a similar problem to writers using the word “literally” when they don’t literally mean “literally.” Sometimes it’s possible to tell that it’s hyperbole. (“I literally eat like a bird.” No, you don’t. I hope.) But sometimes it isn’t. (“I’m literally jumping for joy.” Some people actually do that. But are you really doing that?)

If you’re trying to get a point across, it’s important that you don’t confuse your audience, especially when there are so many easy fixes. I’ve suggested a few of them. How sure am I that they’ll make your writing better? Very.

Word of the Day: Hyperbole

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines hyperbole as: extravagant exaggeration (as “mile-high ice-cream cones”)

Sofia is a freelance editor based in Vancouver, Canada, and just happens to be the daughter of MJR Publishing Services principal, Jane Ross.

Graphic: © Pei Ling Hoo | Dreamstime.com

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