Running the Numbers With Mark Twain

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog.

Sooner or later your business writing will include numbers. In general, they’ll be units of production and amounts of money. Edit this stuff with a hard eye. Do everything you can to help the reader make sense of your numbers. I often find myself using a calculator or spreadsheet as I write and edit.

For an entertaining example, I will muster a lifetime supply of cheek and edit a paragraph by a literary colossus:

‘A cotton planter’s estimate of the average margin of profit on planting, in his section: One man and mule will raise ten acres of cotton, giving ten bales cotton, worth, say, $500; cost of producing, say $350; net profit, $150, or $15 per acre. There is also a profit now from the cottonseed, which formerly had little value — none where much transportation was necessary. In sixteen hundred pounds crude cotton, four hundred are lint, worth, say ten cents a pound; and twelve hundred pounds of seed, worth $12 or $13 per ton.’    – Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

This 129-year-old paragraph still looks pretty fresh. Only the low prices and the reference to ‘… one man and mule…’  give it away. Now to be fair to Mark Twain, he wrote this for what was essentially a light-hearted-memoir-cum-travel book. But he was making a serious economic point, so I feel justified in critiquing it as a piece of business prose. Anyway, it highlights something I often see in business writing, so it’s worth examining.

At issue is how you decide which forms of measure and valuation to use, and how you present them consistently. Twain confuses his reader by shifting and changing.

In the first section the units are acres, bales and dollars. So far, so good. But the key unit of production seems to be ‘ten acres’. Except for net profit, which is shown for both ten acres and a single acre. When you’re proofreading and editing copy like this, open a second document, or make notes of the relative quantities and units of measure:

10 Acres = 10 Bales … so … 1 Acre = 1 Bale

10 Acres income = $500 … so … 1 Acre income  =  $50 = 1 Bale

10 Acres cost = $350 … so … 1 Acre cost  = $35 = 1 Bale

10 Acres profit = $150 … so … 1 Acre profit = $15 = 1 Bale

I would quibble with Twain over his use of the 10-acre unit. He could just as easily have written this:

‘One man and mule will raise ten acres of cotton, giving one bale per acre, worth, say, $50; cost of producing, say $35; net profit, $15 per acre.’ 

This edit keeps the labour and livestock requirements, but it uses the single acre as the unit of production.

In the next section, Twain pulls ‘sixteen hundred pounds’ out of thin air. Where did this come from? A bale is 500 pounds. As a quantity in a paragraph about cotton prices, ‘Sixteen hundred pounds’ makes no sense at all. Then he compounds the error by shifting from dollars to cents:

‘… lint, worth, say, ten cents a pound…’ 

Worst of all, he then shifts back to dollars, but mixes pounds with ‘tons’, which are units of 2,000 pounds in the USA:

‘… twelve hundred pounds of seed, worth $12 or $13 per ton.’

To edit stuff like this, crank up your desktop calculator or open a spreadsheet. You already know that a 500-pound bale is worth $50. Now calculate how much seed you’d have for each bale ginned. The answer is 1,500 pounds, or 3/4 of a ton. So that’s worth 3/4 of $12 to $13, or $9.00 to $9.75.

Insert the new measures and values into Mark Twain’s original para, and you get a much clearer picture of the per-acre economics of the 1880s cotton industry, like this:

‘One man and mule will raise ten acres of cotton, giving one bale per acre, worth, say, $50; cost of producing, say $35; net profit, $15 per acre. There is also a profit now from the cottonseed, which formerly had little value — none where much transportation was necessary. In two thousand pounds crude cotton, five hundred are lint, worth, say, $50; and fifteen hundred pounds of seed, worth $9 or so.

All units of production are now pounds, all units of money are dollars, and everything is keyed to the production of a single acre.

You also get a clearer and more dramatic picture of the new value of cotton seeds, which Twain had remarked upon earlier. Mills had recently been perfected, to press cottonseed oil. Twain gleefully relates how American scoundrels would ship this stuff to Italy, where they would add colouring and flavouring, then ‘import’ it back into the USA as ‘olive oil’. This pirate trade grew to such an extent that ‘… Italy was obliged to put a prohibitory impost upon it to keep it from working serious injury to her oil industry.’

Twain makes no comment on the fact that American palates were unable to tell the difference between cotton and olives.

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About Copymentor

Australian and US copywriter, creative director and author
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