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How to edit and polish statistical writing

Effective statistical writing is important for many writers because it helps explain key pieces of information typically found in the methods and results sections of academic documents. In a TAA webinar entitled “It’s All Greek to Me: Translating Statistical Writing”, Ami Hanson, an editor for Elite Research, LLC, provided many helpful ideas for polishing statistical writing, specifically in dissertations, journal articles, and grant proposals, for maximum reader impact.

For any type of document containing statistical writing, Hanson counsels writers to ask themselves if tables and figures are really necessary before including them in a document. For example, since journal articles are typically brief, tables and figures are not always appropriate for this genre, so the decision to include them should be made with care.

If you do include tables and figures in your article, make sure they are numbered and titled and mentioned in the text in chronological order. Consult your style guide regarding whether the in-text mentioning of tables and figures should be before or after the actual table, and follow formatting guidelines carefully. Finally, make sure in the content of your article that you discuss only the most interesting findings from the tables to avoid redundancy for the readers. Tables and figures should provide information that is not already detailed in the text, adding to the discussion rather than repeating it. Notes are not always needed with visual aids and should only include necessary information that can’t fit inside the table or figure.

In order to make the presentation of your statistical information more accessible to a wider audience, Hanson recommends trying to explain it verbally as if you were describing the information to a layperson face to face, and then writing down what you would say.

When editing your document, Hanson suggests doing several read-throughs, focusing on content first to make sure that everything is explained in as much detail as needed. After the content is polished, edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and finish by checking the formatting of your document against any guidelines you have.

If students working on dissertations encounter a conflict between the formatting requirements of their programs, universities, and/or the style guides they are using, Hanson recommends prioritizing the program’s formatting requirements first, followed by the university’s formatting conventions. In addition, students should discuss formatting issues with their advisors to get clear guidance rather than just following previous works created by others in the department.

In regards to editing for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, Hanson suggests turning on the formatting marks in your document and zooming in on your content to see the details in your tables and figures more clearly.

Some grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues to consider that are especially important in statistical writing include:

Avoid using anthropomorphisms. For example, rather than giving your data human characteristics by writing “the research found” or “this study examines,” use verbs such as “detail”, “indicate”, and “include” instead. If you’re unsure of whether a verb can be used with an inanimate subject, Hanson recommends looking up examples of the verb in an online dictionary. If the dictionary uses an inanimate subject with the verb, then you can use that verb with other inanimate subjects such as “study”, “research”, “results”, etc.

Use numerals correctly. The numbers 10 and above, as well as numbers that represent mathematical functions, dates, or times, should be expressed in numerals. The numbers nine and below as well as numbers that start a sentence or are expressed in a fraction should be written out.

Watch subject-verb agreement. People writing statistical content often mistakenly write phrases such as “Tables Six and Seven includes”, when the two tables grouped together should be treated as plural rather than singular. It is also important to remember that nouns like “data” and “curricula” are irregular plurals, which must be reflected in subject-verb agreement.

Double check formatting. Carefully follow the rules of the style guide you are using to be sure your use of statistical values, italics, and spacing are correct in your text, tables, and figures.

After thoroughly reviewing the document yourself, Hanson recommends getting another perspective by asking a colleague, preferably from another department if possible, to go over your document. A fresh set of eyes will more easily spot errors that you may have overlooked.