One, Two, Three, 4, 5, 6...Writing Numbers in Fiction - A Primer

Professor Jen

This is not a topic that's covered in too many places, especially in regards to fan fiction, and it's not something I run across too often, but I thought I'd add it to our course offerings. It's going to be a pretty short article, though...

So when should you write the numbers out in words and when should you write a number in number format?

According to the Random House Guide to Good Writing {RH}, you should write out “numbers one through one hundred and isolated large round numbers (forty thousand people, twenty-four hundred, five million dollars).” The Chicago Manual of Style {CMS} concurs, saying, “In non-technical texts, the following are spelled out: whole numbers from one through one hundred, round numbers, and any number beginning a sentence.” CMS goes on to say that all other numbers should be in numeral format, but that there are numerous exceptions. Oh, that's helpful—not. And if you care that much, you can beg or borrow a copy and read them for yourself.

Moving on...

Both references agree that numbers in dialogue should be written out (“My father turned sixty-two on his last birthday,” said Jen.) unless the number is unwieldy, like: “Can you believe Karen spent $2675 on clothes yesterday?” Sue asked.

A note on numbers starting a sentence: if you can write it out without issue that's fine, otherwise reword the sentence so the number falls someplace else.

If writing two numbers next to each other, spell one out and use the number for the other for clarity.

For example: Two 1-inch snails crawled along the sidewalk. OR We watched 2 one inch snails climb up the wall.

There are some types of numbers that should always be written in number format. They are:

Both references also agree that time should generally be written out, but CMS adds that exact time should be in number format: He died at 12:34 a.m.

So there's your short primer on writing numbers in fiction.

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