Wield Your Statistics

They’re tools.

Statistics without direction and velocity are useless. They’re a bag of balls, or a rack of bats, blunt as a hockey puck or flabby as an under-inflated football. Pick your own silly analogy, but remember this: having them is pointless if you don’t know how to use them.

We all handle them differently.

Batting Stance

Among the many approaches for handling statistics, you’ll find one that makes you comfortable, but some essentials are common to all good writers: they face forward, adopt a comfortable stance, stare down the opposition, deliver with confidence, and know how to use spin.

My number is a good number.

Readers need to be told how your number compares to the range of possible numbers. The statistic by itself means nothing until you place it into context.

Half Glass
  • A full 50%
  • As high as 50%
  • Has improved to 50%
  • Proud to announce we have achieved 50%
  • At 50%, the perfect balance

My number is a bad number.

Except for experts in the field of your endeavor, your readers are at your mercy to interpret the value of the numbers you share. They count on you to guide them to an understanding of the importance of the evidence you present.

Half Glass
  • A mere 50%
  • As low as 50%
  • Has sunk to 50%
  • Regret to admit we have achieved only 50%
  • At 50%, an awful compromise

Real-life example.

Michelle Obama on her book tour is talking frankly about infertility. The news announcer putting Obama’s miscarriage and subsequent worries into context shared these facts:

  • Approximately 10% of American women between 18 and 45 who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  • The percentage is higher for African-American women.

I have no idea whether those numbers are higher or lower than I should have expected, and the announcer was no help. She could have used the statistics in any of several ways to help me understand.


Find the useless sentence.

Though these sentences below are contradictory and entirely fictional, all but one serve a clear rhetorical purpose. MINOR IN-CLASS TASK: Find the useless sentence in the list below. Identify it by number in the Reply space, explain what’s wrong with it, and pledge to purge any sentences like it from your work.

  1. Modern medicine and Americans’ overall health have reduced the infertility rate to 10% for American women, though sadly the rate is higher for African-Americans.
  2. Shockingly, the infertility rate for African-American women between 18 and 45 is higher than for women in many of the wealthiest African countries.
  3. The infertility rate has skyrocketed to 10% for all American women 18 to 45, even higher for African-Americans.
  4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.

24 Responses to Wield Your Statistics

  1. rose1029 says:

    #4 is the useless sentence, it gives no background information and does not guide the reader in any direction. I pledge to not use this is my writing 🙂

  2. j6128 says:

    setence #2 because how does African-American infertility rate compare to the infertiltiy rate of women in many of the wealthiest African countries. those two groups of women come from two different contients when all the other statsitics were focusing on american women but just highlighting African American women’s infertility rate

  3. stripedsweater21 says:

    Number 2 is pretty useless; it does not report any statistics(percentages) so we cannot reach a very clear conclusion to the topic as we would if there was a percentage shown.

  4. nayr79 says:

    I would say sentence #2 is the useless one. It mentions wealthy African countries, which is somewhat unrelated since we are talking about America. It also doesn’t provide any numerical statistic to provide some credibility, despite how true those numbers may be. Trying to fact check sentence #2 will be harder, since you will be sent down a rabbit hole of links due to the lack of a number.

  5. dupreeh79 says:

    Out of these 5 sentences the useless one is sentence 2. Unlike the pother sentences sentence 2 does not give any defined information.

  6. gossipgirl3801 says:

    #2 is the useless sentence, it provides no helpful information to the reader and doesn’t show what direction, good or bad, the author is going. I won’t do this in my writing.

  7. sixers103 says:

    number 2 because the other four sentences are all roughly talking on the lines of percentages and american women in total while number two is just talking about specifically african-american women

  8. tenere84 says:

    Sentence 4 is the useless sentence. Though it’s related to infertility, the focus has already been shifted to African American women and it has been acknowledged that the infertility rate for Americans in general has decreased significantly.

    • tenere84 says:

      I read that incorrectly; sentence 4 is incorrect because it simply provides information without integrating any rhetorical language or claims (such as evaluation claims).

  9. alyse816 says:

    Sentence # 2 because it does not tell us how the infertility rate compares. There is not statistical information to back up the sentence that was given. This means you cannot tell what is trying to be indicated with the given information.

  10. bmdpiano says:

    #2 is useless because it offers no information to refer to nor does it show how this claim can possibly be made. It should offer what information they saw to create this claim in order to effectively relay it to the readers.

  11. samtheman1448 says:

    Number 2 is a useless sentence because it does not provide any helpful information that makes sense. It talks about the wealthiest African countries but the topic was America.

  12. a1175 says:

    I would say sentence 2 because there isn’t much information about the statistics, it just says the rate is higher for certain African American women.

  13. harp03 says:

    Sentence #4 is the useless sentence because it does not use any foreshadowing words or background information to let the reader know how to approach the statistic. I will not use any of these sentences in my writing.

  14. killerbeanforever says:

    #2 because there isn’t enough detail

  15. omgmafia says:

    #4 because it states the statistic for all American women between ages 18 and 45, but emphasizes African American women without any explanation for the audience. I pledge to purge any sentences like this in my writing

  16. walmaarts says:

    Statement 2 is useless. There isn’t really a statistic. There is no percentage.

  17. Cleo says:

    Sentence #4 is the most useless because it does not necessarily provide us with any useful statistics for the infertility rate

  18. shaquilleoatmeal2250 says:

    Number 2 is wrong because it does not provide any stats it just simply says it’s rate is higher. It doesn’t present how much higher causing it to not be as effective. It provides little guidance to what the reader is looking should be looking for.

  19. dancestar10 says:

    4- it is wrong because its doesn’t give much information about the subject.It doesn’t state what percent of African Americans who experiences infertility

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