13 or Thirteen Rotten Eggs: Numbers in Fiction

We start learning rules from a young age. Say please and thank you. Tell the truth. Be respectful. As we age, we continue learning rules. Use your blinker when shifting lanes. Pay your taxes. Don’t take advantage of someone who’s drunk.


Rules exist everywhere, including in fiction. When writing a novel, it’s okay to use that crazy font you find funny, as long as that font is changed before you submit your work to agents, editors, workshops, etc. The same principle applies with numbers.

This past fall I participated in a fiction workshop. It was a great experience, except I was shocked at how often I saw numerals in the text. Perhaps my scientific schooling has made numerals in fiction jump out at me, but generally numbers zero through one hundred are spelled out. Numbers over one hundred are in the numeral form.

I take this as a hard rule, as do most editors. By spelling out numbers, the visual appeal of the page increases.

Which reads better?

“The hen produced 13 rotten eggs over the past year.”


“The hen produced thirteen rotten eggs over the past year.”

Chances are most of you chose the second option.


Because the writing flows smoother.

In fiction, an aspect of writing that tends to get pushed to the side is the flow of the words, sentences, and paragraphs on the page. (This is one of the reasons why it’s important to read your writing out loud during revision.) You could have a great set of characters and a wonderful plot, but if your writing keeps tossing readers out of the story, you have a problem.

Punctually and grammatically incorrect writing is like speed bumps. Readers are forced to slow down to understand the writing. If they don’t realize a road bump is coming, then they crash over the speed bump and are jolted from their seats.

No one wants that to happen.

Exceptions exist to these rules. When using a.m. or p.m., then numerals are employed. Numbers are spelled out in dialogue because dialogue equals the spoken word. Write brand names as they’re spelled. If your character visits a 7-Eleven, then 7-Eleven is written in the numeral form.

Not everyone finds editing rules important. However, editors, agents, and a good amount of readers do. If you don’t know how to write numbers properly in fiction, or for that matter format your work correctly, editors, agents, etc. are more likely to assume you don’t know what you’re doing and disregard your work. Agents, editors – heck, even some readers – are looking for reasons not to read your story. Don’t provide them a reason through something small and easy to fix. Write numbers correctly in fiction.

What do you think of editorial rules in fiction?

(Photo courtesy of Rakka.)

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