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Statistics Every Writer Should Know

Numbers can't "talk," but they can tell you as much as your human sources can. But as with human sources, you have to ask!

So what should you ask a number? Well, mathematicians have developed an entire field — statistics — dedicated to getting answers out of numbers. Now, you don't have to have a degree in statistics in order to conduct an effective "interview" with your data. But you do need to know a few basics.

In 1996, I first published Statistics Every Writer Should Know, an online tutorial for math-phobic journalists. I majored in a program called "Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences" at Northwestern University (try to fit that on a job application!), and thought that I could use my math background to help some of my fellow newspaper reporters become less afraid of numbers. The website attracted a lot of attention, and over the years, I've received hundreds of emails from students thanking me for saving their rear end on their statistics finals. That wasn't the audience I was aiming for, but hey, I'm happy to help anyone.

Running a business demands at least a basic knowledge of math and math concepts, so I'm including this tutorial as an appendix my 2012 book, How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online. I've rewritten and updated several of the sections, so even if you've followed my work before, I hope you'll find this version of the tutorial even more helpful.

Here, described in plain English, are some basic concepts in statistics that every writer should know...

So, You're a Beginner?

   Let's get started...
   How to find out how the "average Joe" is doing
   So, like, who's popular?

The Next Step: Not Getting Duped

Per capita and Rates
   When an increase is really a decrease and other ways people can use numbers to trick you
Standard Deviation and Normal Distribution
   A quick look at the King of Stats
Survey Sample Sizes and Margin of Error
   How not to get suckered by polls and other research
Regression Analysis
   It's all about relationships...
Data Analysis
   How to tell if these numbers are really worth writing about anyway

Frequently Asked Questions

Statistical Tests
   "How do I pick the correct statistical test for me?"
Finding Data on the Internet
   "So where can I find the inflation rate, crime statistics, and other data?"

Moving On

Student's T
   Is your sample relevant to the larger population it is supposed to represent? Use the t-test to find out.
Buy Robert's Book
   If these lessons helped you, why not help their author? ;^)

© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.