Top 3 data reporting errors

When I started working as a proofreader/copy editor in the social/market research industry, I had to learn the correct way to phrase data findings. Basically, I had to learn how to write up the data in order to edit reports on the data.

Having proofread and edited hundreds of reports, proposals and articles over the past 19 years, I’ve seen the same errors popping up over and over again. Here are the top three mistakes when it comes to writing up data findings:

Data comparison as a percentage. When you’re comparing data, always refer to differences as percentage points or points—not percent. If your data show that last year 25 percent strongly agreed that taxes are too high and this year 35 percent strongly agree, that’s a difference of 10 points. But if strong agreement increased by 10 percent from last year, that would make it only 27.5 percent strongly agreeing (10% of 25 = 2.5 points).

Same goes for citing margin of error (MOE): The findings of the survey are accurate to +/- 1.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Data difference that’s not statistically significant. Speaking of margin of error (MOE), when citing differences in data, the MOE will dictate whether those differences are statistically significant. If your margin of error is +/- 2.0 points, a data difference of one or two points either way isn’t statistically significant. If you want to write it up as a directional change, that’s fine—but, otherwise, you must characterize it as statistically unchanged.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the margin of error for subgroups (like region, gender and age, etc.) will be larger than that for your total sample—in some cases, considerably so. This means those differences need to be especially marked to be worth mentioning. Remember: The smaller the sample, the larger the MOE.

Incomplete demographic groups. When reporting on demographic variations, make sure you’re not leaving anyone out. If your age breakdown has seniors (age 65 plus) combined into one age cohort, writing this group up as “over 65” would be incomplete. What happened to the 65-year-olds? In this case, “65 and older” encompasses your entire age demographic.

Same goes for other demographics like household income. If the top income group in your statistical tables is $100,000 plus, reporting it as “over $100,000” would be incorrect; “$100,000 or more” would also include those making $100,000.

Bonus error:

Data as a singular noun. Unless you’re citing a single data point, general mentions of data should be in the plural: The data are weighted to reflect the national population.

 

There you have it. Of course, it’s always good to have someone—preferably a professional proofreader/copy editor—check your work before you hit Send or Print on that document.

Happy writing!

With thanks to Brenda Sharpe, Senior Research Associate at Environics Research, for her assistance with framing these data issues.

Seven habits of great writers

Over the years, I’ve met, read and seen interviews with a lot of great writers. And I got to thinking: What do all these amazing writers have in common?

Set up a routine. Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, making time for your writing is important—especially if you’re scheduling your writing around work or family commitments. Setting up a routine for yourself will go a long way toward making sure you show up on the page regularly.

Set up a space. Do you prefer to work at home at a desk, the kitchen table or on the couch? Or maybe the social hum of a coffee shop or a quiet nook in a library does it for you. Do you prefer to write on a computer; or do you like to start out with pen and paper, and type it up later? As important as making the time is making the space. This is your space, so only you can tell what works for you and your writing.

Read great writers. This seems like a given, but so often we can get caught up in our own writing and editorial work—not to mention life—that we don’t read anything much beyond our own words, texts, emails, or the news online. Reading great writers can help expand your vocabulary, give you a break from your own scribing—and be inspirational too. There’s nothing like coming across a beautifully written piece of prose by a great writer. Okay, you may end up wishing that you wrote it—but you can also be glad that someone else did.

If you get stuck, do something else. Got writer’s block? Go for a walk, go to the movies, meet a friend for coffee. Torturing yourself ad nauseam over a character, idea or plot device will only make you nuts and waste time. Stop thinking about the problem so hard, and give yourself a refresh and reset. Get up, get away, clear the cobwebs and come back to it later.

Go to reading events. Like reading great writers, going to reading events is not only supportive and inspirational, but a good way to meet and network with other writers. Writing can be a lonely, solitary road—and as much as our friends and family love us, they just might not understand why we spend so much time and energy on wordsmithing. So it’s good to get out and hang out with people who get it.

Edit, edit and edit again. Nothing’s perfect the first time around. Write it, then go back and edit. And edit. And edit. Have a trusted friend or colleague read it, and ask for feedback. If you’re working with editor, work with him/her to craft your words to be the best they can be. Try not to be precious or overly protective of your words. If something doesn’t work, it may need to be rewritten, inserted elsewhere or taken out completely. It’s hard when you have to delete a section you were in love with, but if it’s not serving the piece, you need to put on your big writer pants and take it out.

And, above all, write! Even if you don’t believe in that 10,000 hours to mastery philosophy, the most important thing of all is to do it. Sit yourself down during that time, with those tools and in that space that is your happy writing place, and write. You’re not necessarily going to produce a masterpiece right away, but with practice and effort, you can create some awesome work.

Happy writing!

Typos matter, but words matter even more

You’ve probably noticed the ongoing debate over whether, and how much, typos matter. Full disclosure: As a copy editor/proofreader, I have to admit I’m more than a bit biased when I say, “Yes! Yes, they do matter!” For those who aren’t in an editorial position, not so much.

Even among the best writers, typos happen. Our minds know what we want to say, so it’s easy to gloss over a missing word or typo as we read our copy back to ourselves.

However, depending on who your audience is, typos can have some negative consequences for your organization or message:

The focus will turn to the typo and away from your message. Some readers and clients may be spelling and grammar nerds. You want the focus to be on your message, not on a relatively minor error.

The inadvertent result of conveying the opposite of what you mean to say. This is especially the case for a missing word (e.g., “not”), or the confusing use/misuse of negative phrasing (e.g., “they disagreed that they didn’t know about the meeting).

The perception that you’re sloppy or incompetent. If you can’t get your message right, how will you be able to handle the actual work?

Besides, with spell check, we can now at the very least catch some of those silly spelling mistakes we all make from time to time.

When all is said and done, it’s the writing—the story you’re telling—that is front and centre. And the odd typo or missed word won’t take away from solid, compelling writing.

While copy editing and proofreading will give you the tight, crisp edge your copy needs (especially for those more discerning clients), what matters the most is your words. So choose your words carefully. And have someone else read over your copy if possible.

Happy writing!

 

 

Five quick DIY copy fixes

It’s a New Year—time for setting goals, and looking forward with openness and excitement to opportunities ahead. Maybe you’re thinking about learning a new skill or improving on an existing one. No doubt about it, we can always be better and do better.

As I’ve mentioned before, nothing beats having another set of eyes on your copy—preferably, someone with the skill and experience to catch the errors and enhance the writing.

Perfect world thinking aside, we live in a reality of tight budgets and deadlines—and this means we don’t always have sufficient time for someone else read over our work.

Here are five quick fixes you can perform before you click Send on that document:

  1. Global search and replace double space with single space. Back in the day of typewriters (for those of us old enough to remember them), we needed to include two spaces after periods and colons to optimize readability and formatting. Word processing software has made this unnecessary; one space is all you need. Oddly enough, I’ve spoken with folks who’ve never used a typewriter, but still think they need two spaces.

And, sometimes, you may have just hit that space bar more than once in the middle of a sentence. This fix will get rid of those stray extra spaces and tighten up your copy visually.

  1. Look out for widows and orphans. This goes without saying in a caring, sharing society—but what we’re talking about here are widows and orphans in your copy. The last line of your paragraph ends up by its lonesome at the top of the next page/column (widow) or the first line of your paragraph is left alone at the bottom of a page/column (orphan).

Reunite those widows and orphans with their respective paragraphs. Same goes for headings and subheadings left dangling at the bottom of a page/column.

  1. Scan for missing periods. Seems like a simple enough thing, but multiple edits may have changed your phrasing, and you may have neglected to add the appropriate punctuation.
  1. Check your table of contents. It’s relatively easy to format your headings and subheadings to automatically create a table of contents (TOC). However, if you have multiple levels of subheadings, some may have gotten missed and these will be left out of your TOC.
  1. Run a spell check. As I’ve said before, spell check isn’t perfect and will never replace a pair of trained, experienced human eyes. However, it’s a useful tool to catch dumb mistakes you may have missed. Pay attention to what it suggests, though, as it may not recognize things like Canadian or organization-specific custom spelling.

These are among the top—and easiest to fix—copy errors. Give it a go and enjoy the results of cleaner, physically tighter copy.

Happy writing!

Spell check is useful, but not guaranteed to save your copy

As I was setting up the background info and links in advance of writing my life with more cowbell blog post on Soulpepper’s upcoming production of It’s A Wonderful Life, I noticed that spell check was taking issue with my spelling of “It’s.” Spell check recommended “Its.”

Spell check was wrong about this common spelling mistake.

“It’s” is an abbreviation of “It is,” as in “It is a wonderful life.”

“Its” is the possessive of “it,” as in “Its life was wonderful.”

While spell check can be a useful tool to catch typos and grammatical errors, it’s (and that’s correct, spell check) far from perfect. So when spell check offers an alternative spelling, don’t automatically assume it’s right and you’re wrong.

Since I work mainly with Canadian clients, I use the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Think of Canadian English as a hybrid of British and American English—“colour” and “centre,” but “organization” and “analyze.” And if a client has a style guide, I also use that as a reference. So spelling will be dictated by the client’s country of origin and any custom style conventions—conditions that spell check may not recognize.

Yet another example of why you need another pair of human eyes on your copy.

Happy holidays—and happy writing!

Don’t be sorry, be better

 

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I was very happy and excited to launch the website for words with cowbell yesterday. After shouting it out on social media, a couple of friends* gave me the heads-up on some writing issues, one of which was a typo. Irritated with myself, I corrected it immediately.

This morning, while I was revising the other issue—an admittedly awkward turn of phrase—I noticed a second typo. And this one didn’t only appear on the website, it had been copied over from my one-page promo doc! I was mortified.

How could I expect people to trust me with their copy editing and writing needs when I was making mistakes with my own writing? After some moments of mental self-flagellation, I realized that this was a perfect example of why people need copy editors and proofreaders. You need another pair of eyes on your work.

For those of us who write—even those of us who are good at it and enjoy it immensely—we know in our hearts and minds what we want to say; and when we read it over, it looks perfectly fine. Sometimes, however, it may not appear on the page exactly as we’re seeing it. This is because we’re so close to it, and know it so well in our heads, that our minds fill in missing words and gloss over typos. And, let’s face it, life gets crazy busy and fatigue-related errors happen.

This is precisely why we need a second pair of eyes on our copy. Spell check, even if we remember to use it, is a good secondary support tool—but can only do so much. Your primary support needs to be another person reading your copy; preferably someone trained and/or experienced to do so.

Like I told myself this morning: Don’t be sorry, be better.

* With thanks to David Nicholson and John Oughton.