Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ink to Data Ratio

Sharon Wildwind
Thanks to everyone who participated in the “Same Search” experiment last week. The results are posted at the end of the Tuesday, September 18, 2012 “Silos and Imagination” blog. If you’re interested, enter either the title or date in the Blogger search box or scroll down until you find it.

A couple of years ago a list of 10 books every geek has read (or something like that) circulated. My husband had read more than I had, so I decided I’d finish the entire list. Last week I completed the last one, Dr. Edward R. Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I first learned about graphs in fourth grade. I loved them. The only other math that excited me as much was geometry, and obviously, the two are related. Graphs were art to me and I loved baroque art. Any time I could I’d add thick lines, curlicues, cross-hatching, coloring, obscure legends, etc. I’d pile them on. Here’s my idea of a completely fictional graph showing that men and women did some activity at different rates over 162 years.

Blue represents men and green represents women

Stunning, isn’t it?

According to Dr. Tufte that’s exactly what it is. So stunning in fact that the data is lost. Dr. Tufte’s recommendations
  • Make sure your data matches your label. The heading is 165 years of data, but only 162 years are shown.
  • Ditch the last 12 years because the other divisions cover 50 years each
  • Set your bottom and top points at real figures (range is lowest and highest result in the study)
  • Use the minimum number of divisions you can and still make sense
  • Remove as many lines, borders, shading, etc. Use gray or white instead of black for those things you can’t get rid of
  • Mute the colors

Dark blue indicates men and lighter blue indicates women

Same data, different graph.

It turned out that the real purpose of graphs was to convey data, which brings us to maximizing the ink to data ratio. What that means is that every drop of ink printed should convey meaningful data.

That a good rule for writers as well. If something isn’t meaningful to the story, why spend ink (and the readers’ time) on it?

Obviously, as writers, we can’t be as clean as the people who draw graphs. We have to have all of those pesky modifiers so that sentences make sense, and set up background, characters, etc. However, it’s a good idea to do a spot check now and then.

To do this experiment, you’ll need 8-10 consecutive pages of something you’ve written, and a colored marker. Go through each page to see if there is something on each page that is essential to the story, something that must be in the story for completeness. Below is one page from Missing, Presumed Wed. Quinn Kirkpatrick is concerned that his son, Benny (who is about to marry someone else), has romantic feelings for Pepper. The three lines I’ve highlighted are essential to that question.

The idea is if you don’t have something essential to the story on every page, you’ve got too high an ink to data to ratio: too much ink, too little data.
Quote for the week

The idea of trying to create things that last - forever knowledge - has guided my work for a long time now. 
~ Dr. Edward R. Tufte, statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University.

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