What was that number again …? The solution to re-using stats in your writing

Photo: kerolic via Flickr

Like many reporters, I have developed several niches in my reporting within medical research. I most often write about pediatrics, women’s health, mental health, vaccines, public health (including gun violence) and, increasingly, health disparities or related social justice aspects of health and medicine.

Because I try to include links throughout my writing to back up the figures I use to provide context on a topic, I would frequently find myself looking up the same data again and again. For topics like vaccines, it usually wasn’t too difficult to find studies or statistics I had previously cited. They were generally easy to find on the CDC website, or I could remember a couple key articles I’d written where I linked to the majority of the figures I might want to link to again.

But with other topics, and an increasing number of them in general, it became more challenging. When I write about gun violence, I’ll get frustrated when I have to take out 10 minutes to dig up a statistic I KNOW I’ve cited before but now can’t find. Or I’ll be reporting on mental health and looking for a prevalence statistic that should be simple enough to find but — given the challenges inherent in mental health diagnosis and reporting — takes twice as long to track down as I expect.

I finally did what I wish I’d thought of years ago, so I’m sharing here in case others want to do their own versions. I’ve created a massive spreadsheet where each individual worksheet is dedicated to a topic I write about. As I write my stories (or in between writing when I’m procrastinating with a bit of mindless busywork), I pull the statistics or evidence statements I’m most likely to need again and add them to the sheet. I include the stat itself, such as an estimated prevalence for postpartum depression, in the first column.

The second column is the name of the source (CDC, NIH, the name of the research journal, etc.), the third column is the date (so I can note whether the stat itself may be getting old and need to be updated), the fourth column is the link to the primary source, and the last column is a link to either a secondary source or a previous article I’ve written on the topic if I ever want to use it for extra support or link backs to my work.

There’s a bit of upfront time investment on a project like this, but I’m already finding how much easier it makes my work. When I can’t recall how much greater the likelihood of homicide is in a home with a gun, or the chart showing the incidence of pertussis going back nearly 100 years, or magnitude of increased risk for maternal mortality among black women, I can go to my spreadsheet and quickly look it up on the “firearms/gun violence,” “infectious disease” and “maternal health” tabs.

One thought on “What was that number again …? The solution to re-using stats in your writing

  1. Avatar photoTerry Griffin

    A good solution! Compiling a resource of baselines for background also sets the writer up to recognize newsworthy change when new studies or prevalence estimates are released.

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