Blog posts and other written content often contain references to data. Including facts and figures in your work helps convey quantitative context to readers as well as giving them confidence that the points you’re making are backed up by solid research. It’s important to conduct due diligence before using this sort of information, however, and to offer proper citations when including it in your own content.
The AP Stylebook, long regarded as one of the final arbiters on writing, has included a discussion of best practices for data usage in written content in its newest edition. The 2016 Stylebook offers these guidelines to help writers evaluate the value of data when creating content based on or referencing facts and figures from external sources:
“Data sources used in stories should be vetted for integrity and validity. When evaluating a data set, consider the following questions:
- What is the original source for the data? How reliable is it? Can we get answers to questions about it?
- Is this the most current version of the data set? How often is the data updated? How many years of data have been collected?
- Why was the data collected? Was it for purposes of advocacy? Might that affect the data’s reliability or completeness? Does the data make intuitive sense? Are there anomalies (outliers, blank values, different types of data in the same field) that would invalidate the analysis?
- What rules and regulations affect the gathering (and interpretation) of the data?
- Is there an alternative source for comparison? Does the data for a parallel industry, organization or region look similar? If not, what could explain the discrepancy?”
Their advice also includes the following tips for using data appropriately:
- When using data or an analysis of it as a visual or descriptive aid, take care to represent the original numbers or conclusions accurately.
- If there are limitations regarding a particular data set or conclusion, convey that fact to your readers, along with the specific concerns if they are available.
- Let readers know why certain conclusions are based on a subset of the complete data or another data set entirely, if this is the case.
- Make it easier for readers to process the data you share by limiting how many numbers you include in one sentence, or even in one paragraph.
In addition to these points I’ll add one of my own: Be sure to include a reference to the data source along with a link, when possible, so interested readers can learn more about the methods used to generate the information and the conclusions drawn from it.
Now you’re ready to share the numbers that illustrate your points and strengthen your arguments. Nerd out at will!