6 Writing from Data

Writing from Data

Carol Lynn Moder

Many academic writing tasks require you to present information that you have gathered or that you have been given in to explain or interpret the information. One common way of presenting data is to use a table.

Many beginning writers simply take the tables that they get from a database or statistical package and insert them into their writing, but this practice is not usually very effective. When you present data in a table you should consider whether the way you have labeled and organized it will be understandable to your audience. You should also consider what your purpose as a writer is. Why are you presenting this information? What is the main idea that you want to convey? Even when we are presenting numerical data, we as writers need to consider that the thesis of the writing is and how we can make it clear to the audience. One important way of making sure the information in a table is clear is to provide good labels.

TABLE 1: Health Statistics 2002 – 2003
France USA
Life Expectancy 72 years 69.3 years
Percent overweight (Body Mass Index ≥25)
Men 49% 68%
Women 35% 51%

 

Consider Table 1. The title on the table “Health Statistics 2002-2003” gives the reader a very general idea of the kind of information the table will contain and the dates it was collected, but it does not help the reader to understand what the writer’s main point is in presenting the table. What does the writer want the reader to focus on? By looking at the headings for the columns on the right “France” and “USA,” we can guess that the writer’s focus is a comparison of the two countries. The information in the rows suggests that the comparison will be related to “life expectancy” and the “percent” of the population that were “overweight.” By looking at these labels we can figure out what the purpose of the comparison might be, but it would be much more effective if the writer put a title on the table that made its purpose explicit.

 

FOCUS: Labelling Tables

Brainstorm some better titles for Table 1. Consider how each title might indicate the writer’s main purpose.

Why do you think the information about France is in the first column? What does the order of the columns suggest to you about the writer’s focus?

 

The second key way to use the presentation of data to support your main purpose is to explain the information in the table is clearly in the text of the writing. Do not assume that a reader will look at the table and understand it the way you intend.

 

FOCUS: Comparing for a purpose

Look at Table 1 and write three statements that use the information in the table to compare France and the USA.

Think about the three statements you have written. How could you use them to develop a thesis? What would the thesis be?

 

The information in table 1 comes from an article by Paul Rozin in which he examines what has been called “The French Paradox.” From an American point of view, the paradox is that the French appear to eat food that is rich and high in cholesterol – including cream, high-fat cheeses, and meats – but they seem to be healthier than Americans. Since Americans generally believe that diet is a main factor in health and disease and since many diet experts in the U.S. recommend low-fat diets, this combination of a rich diet and good health appears puzzling. To investigate the paradox, Rozin and his colleagues conducted a survey of the attitudes about food of French and American college students. Some of the survey results appear in Table 2. In Table 2, we provide the very specific title of the table that Rozin used in his article. Note how clearly it defines the source of the information and its purpose. The box below gives an example of how the results of the table could be described in the text to highlight the main purpose of the writer.

Table 2: Attitudes Toward Food and Eating among College Students in Paris, France, and Philadelphia, United States, Based on Responses to Word Associations, Scenarios, and Self-Assessment
The French Americans
Word Association: Cream → unhealthy 26% 58%
Prefer an inexpensive nutrient pill to eating 10% 27%
Prefer, at the same price, a luxury hotel with average food to a modest hotel with gourmet food 11% 77%

In text description of Table 2 (based on Rozin 2005, p. S2010)

 

Table 2 illustrates some major differences in French and American attitudes toward food and eating. For example, compared with the French study participants, much higher percentages of participants in the United States associated the words “heavy cream” with “unhealthy.” More Americans said that they would prefer consuming an inexpensive nutrient pill to eating. Americans were also much more likely than the French to prefer, at the same price, a week at a luxury hotel with average food over a modest hotel with gourmet food. Overall, we found that for our survey participants, compared with Americans, the French seem to consider eating good food a more important part of life than Americans do.

 

Language Focus

Look at the in-text description and underlined phrases that are used to present comparisons:

  • compared with
  • much higher
  • more
  • much more likely than
  • more important than

 

Table 3 shows the results from the same article of a comparison of the serving sizes of food in restaurants and supermarkets in France and the United States.

Table 3
France USA
Restaurant
McDonald’s 189 grams 256 grams
Chinese 244 grams 418 grams
Supermarket – Most common size
Yogurt 125 grams 227 grams
Coca-Cola 330 grams 500 grams

FOCUS: Introducing Tables and comparing results

Write an informative title for the Table 3.

Write an in-text introduction for Table 3.

Write a comparison of the results for France in the United States.

Be sure to use some comparison phrases.

 

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Writing from Data by Carol Lynn Moder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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