When used on the cover, numbers go beyond mere numerology; they become editorial quantifiers, limiting the range of individuals or items to a selective list. As quantifiers, they are numbers—only more so. Readers want to know who made the cut. Curiosity brings them into the magazine to see what’s going on here.
Some numbers are like chiseled blocks in a magazine’s editorial identity: Fortune 500, Forbes 400.
Others are like a report card, ranking the best and the brightest in a crowded field: The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time (The Atlantic), 100 + Most Influential Black Americans (Ebony).
In addition to creating curiosity, quantifiers are great visual devices. They make a story browsable, breaking the text into bite-size units as numbers take the reader through a story in checklist fashion. A reader in a hurry can glance at a Top 10 listing, say, and read the first line of each item, getting a gist of what’s going on. Another reader, with more time, can read each item at length.
Quantifiers are also editorial guarantees of quality in a world of overload and oversell. Readers like them for their no-nonsense value and concreteness: 218 Best Buys (Real Simple), Bathroom Bliss: 20 New Products (Dwell), 48 Georgia Colleges: Everything you need to know about academics, tuition, athletics, dorm life & more (Atlanta Magazine).
After taking a look at the numbers, here are some guidelines for your consideration.
10. Watch out for overload. One or two quantifiers per cover and you sound selective and intelligent. More than three and you may sound like an auctioneer.
9. Parody or wordplay can add curiosity to a number.
7 Deadly Sins for Our Times (Time)
8. Huge numbers can be awesome, man. At some magazines the final count comes from averaging the tips per page and then multiplying by the number of editorial pages—“Okay, we have eight tips per page and 140 editorial pages and hence we have 1,100 tips in the magazine,” explained David Zinczenko, editor of Men’s Health, in The New York Observer.
7. Small numbers can stress quality over quantity. Not everything has to be packaged in multiples of ten or twenty.
16 Ways to Save Money on Wood (Wood Magazine)
6. Numbers can be rounded off for big topics. Stories about wide-open spaces or complex cities may call for a wide-open quantifier.
75 Things We Love About Texas (Texas Monthly)
5. Numbers can be intriguing.
10 Things No Woman Should Feel Guilty About (Glamour)
4. Numbers can be timely or seasonal. 12 resolutions for the New Year is one approach to the months ahead. Or 365 tips to make you healthy, wealthy, and wise—plus an extra tip for leap year. Some magazines use quantifiers for timely issues.
45 Atlantans We Love (Atlanta) (Special 45th anniversary issue)
3. Numbers can be trendy.
150 Easy Ways to Go Green at Home (Domino)
2. Odd numbers work well. Offbeat numbers are more attention-getting. “I have to like the number,” said Kate White, editor of Cosmopolitan. “Sometimes I’ll have 75 items and I’ll like the number 67 better.” Thus, 19 Ballsy Things Every Girl Should Do (Cosmopolitan)
1. Use numbers in ascending order of interest. When enumerating a Top 10 list, don’t start with number one; instead, open with 10 (like Letterman), then count down in descending order numerically…but in ascending order in terms of interest. Like this.
* This is a favorite handout, available if you drop me an e-mail request.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his Web site is johnbrady.info, or you can e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.