Don’t give up on being different

Do you worry that nothing can make your writing stand out from the rest of the pack?

Here’s some inspiration for you from Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing:

Eventually, we all tell the same stories, yet none of our stories sound like anyone else’s. Think of your dullest family member, the pixilated uncle who tells the same family anecdote over and over every Thanksgiving. Even he never tells his story the same way twice.

Rosenblatt’s statement reminds us that everyone expresses things differently—and their own way of expressing themselves varies over time. As a result, the way that you express yourself is inherently different.

But, you may say, I don’t want to be a boring uncle. Of course not. That’s why you should build on your differences.

Ways to differentiate your writing

Consider using the techniques I discuss in “How to add personality and warmth to your financial writing, part one” and “Part two. “(The two posts are summarized in “Infographic: 5 ways to add personality to your financial writing.”

Also, strive to make your writing achieve the three C’s of being compelling, clear, and concise.

Another way to differentiate yourself is to speak to a narrowly defined audience. Show that you understand your audience’s unique characteristics.

Do these things, and you’ll achieve a difference that attracts readers.

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Writers, do you know when something’s wrong?

As a writer, can you recognize when something you’ve written doesn’t work?

In Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, Roger Rosenblatt says:

Good writers always know when something is wrong with a piece. They may kid themselves for a while, but the mistake eats at them until they have no choice but to act.

Does Rosenblatt’s opinion ring true to you?

I have mixed feelings about it.

I think I can recognize when my work is blatantly “off.” But I’m not so sure about smaller things. That’s why I’m always open to getting a second opinion on my work. For example, my writing group’s feedback on Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients was very helpful. I also sometimes use software to read things out loud to myself. As I said in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading,” I hear problems that I couldn’t see.

What about you? Can you tell when something is wrong with your writing?

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Editing tool: the Writer’s Diet

It’s hard to be objective about your own writing. I know that’s true for me. That’s why editing tools, like the Writer’s Diet, can help.

Writer’s Diet editing tool shows weaknesses

The Writer’s Diet is a free, online tool that assesses what you enter into its text box. It evaluates your use of verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives/adverbs, and “it, this, that, there.” As the website explains, “The higher the percentage of highlighted words, the ‘flabbier’ your score.”

Let’s look at each item:

  • The verb test doesn’t penalize you for verbs in general. It counts be-verbs, which I’ve railed against in “The ‘Be’ test for writers.”
  • The noun test counts abstract nouns, also known as nominalizations, which I’ve discussed in “Quit hiding your meaning.” Abstract nouns are generally not a good idea, though sometimes they are necessary.
  • The preposition test counts common prepositions. Prepositions aren’t bad. But too many of them may make a sentence too complex.
  • The adjectives/adverbs test counts words with common endings for adjectives and adverbs. An occasional adjective or adverb is fine. Too many make your sentences hard to understand.
  • The “it, this, that, there” test counts those words. The author also calls this the “waste word test.”

Below is a sample analysis that I found on the Writer’s Diet website. Can you see how weak it is?

Writer's Diet website sample

 

Run multiple samples through this test, suggests Helen Sword, the creator of the Writer’s Diet, in her book, Stylish Academic Writing. “By the time you have tested three or four samples of your writing, you will have become aware of your signature usage patterns—for example, a predilection for abstraction (translation: too many spongy abstract nouns) or a tendency to begin every sentence with this.”

No editing tool is perfect

No online editing tool is perfect. The Writer’s Diet tool admits that. It says, “Many fabulous pieces of prose will receive scores of Flabby or even Heart Attack, because stylish writers have the confidence and skill to play around with language in ways that the test is not designed or intended to evaluate.”

Thewriters diet editing test example reverse is true, too. See the paragraph below, which I used as an example of bad writing in “Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing,” my article on MarketingProfs (free registration required). The Writer’s Diet praised this awful sentence as “lean,” not recognizing that jargon made it difficult to understand.

Even my favorite online tool, which I discussed in “Free help for wordy writers,” can’t identify all problems. That’s why your writing will benefit from a combination of automated and human evaluation.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy “Quick check for writers, with an economic commentary example” and “5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary.”

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Image courtesy of Keerati at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Word repetition—good or bad?

“Can I repeat this word throughout my report, or is it better to mix things up?” That’s a question I hear sometimes. Many people think that repetition is bad.

I like the following quote from Roger Rosenblatt in Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing:

Read Hemingway’s short stories, where he uses the same words over and over, and the words gain meaning with every repetition. If you have someone say something, let him “say” it—not aver it, declare it or intone it. Let the power reside in what he says.

I love that last line: “Let the power reside in what he says.”

I took a stand for repetition in “How to discuss index and portfolio returns: My case against synonyms for ‘return’.” I prefer plain old “returned.” However, many of my survey respondents favored more colorful words. I’m glad I found Rosenblatt’s quote to make my case.

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Writing for financial experts

How should you tailor your financial writing for experts like institutional investors or financial professionals? I have many gut feelings about what you should do. But this time I’m drawing on other people’s research. Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) performs great research about how people read on the web. NNG’s Hoa Loranger and Kate Meyer discuss “Writing Digital Copy for Domain Experts” in an article that may apply to financial experts. I say “may apply” because their article only mentions “medical professionals, scientists, and engineers.”

Here are the five main findings or recommendations in Loranger and Meyer’s article:

  1. Provide facts, avoid interpretation.
  2. Citations and supporting evidence are critical.
  3. Experts care about recency.
  4. Shared vocabularies change the rules for plain language.
  5. Grammar and spelling count.

1. Provide facts, avoid interpretation

Loranger and Meyer say that experts care most about the following two types of information, as they are “on a fact-finding mission”:

  1. New information that they haven’t considered or heard of
  2. Contradictory information that is contrary to their existing knowledge or beliefs

“Lead with data and facts. Researchers can see through hype,” say Loranger and Meyer. They stress presenting facts and providing “proof for your statements.” The idea of providing proof squares with what colleagues have told me about their perception of the difference between writing for institutional vs. retail investors.

Although Loranger and Meyer’s heading says to “avoid interpretation,” I think what they really mean is to make your content “free from unnecessary fluff and vague assertions,” as they say elsewhere in this piece.

2. Citations and supporting evidence are critical

Loranger and Meyer say, “Domain experts often scan bylines and citations for name recognition. If the content is written by a well-respected person or entity, readers are more likely to trust the information.”

How might this translate into the world of investment management? It might mean the difference between using asset-class performance data from Standard & Poor’s or Bloomberg Barclays vs. data from a little firm that’s not widely known or—even worse—simply saying, “in our experience, this is how this asset class behaves.”

If possible, make it easy for the experts to access your original sources of information. Of course, that’s not possible if you’re licensing proprietary information from a provider that keeps its data behind a pay wall.

3. Experts care about recency

Experts may leave sites where article dates aren’t shown or the dates are old, according to NNG’s research.

Loranger and Meyer say, “Show dates even for evergreen content that continues to be relevant long past its publication date. Domain experts can decipher between time-sensitive developments and long-lasting concepts and older dates.” (This makes me feel good about the fact that my blog posts on this website show their publication date.)

4. Shared vocabularies change the rules for plain language

It’s OK to use technical language if your audience consists solely of technical experts, according to this article. Although I often rail against technical language, as in “Words to avoid in your investment communications with regular folks,” I’m more flexible when I work on institutional communications.

Explaining concepts that experts know well may work against you, say the authors. Experts may look at your work and decide that it’s meant for the general public. Still, I suggest that you be careful not to overestimate your audience. For example, a so-called institutional investor could be a less sophisticated investment committee member or financial advisor. Read “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication” for my take on how to keep everybody happy.

Loranger and Meyer suggest that you use extra care if your audience includes people new to the field, if you’re discussing less-common concepts or tangential fields, or if your terms have multiple meanings.

5. Grammar and spelling count

You may think that experts care more about the information than how you write about it. Think again.

“…when your target users are highly educated, they may be more likely to catch mistakes in your writing, and they may be more critical,” say Loranger and Meyer.

Useful tips for writing online for experts

This article provided some tips specific to writing online for experts.

You can’t dump too many facts on a web page. You’ll overwhelm your readers. The solution? Loranger and Hoa suggest layering your information, using two techniques:

  1. State the summary at the top. Then provide more detail information down the page progressively.
  2. Include hyperlinks that take readers to supporting details on deeper-level pages. Experts are particularly likely to click on hyperlinks to increase their understanding of a topic.

An A-to-Z index to your content may make sense for experts, while it wouldn’t work for the general public “because users don’t often know the exact name of the topic they want,” say Loranger and Meyer.

Another online writing tip: sign up for the Nielsen Norman Group weekly newsletter. It’s one of the few newsletters I read regularly.

Quit underlining headings in your documents!

Underlining headings in your written documents used to be common. That’s no longer true, especially because underlined text now leads people to expect hyperlinks.

Underlining headings dates back to the days of typewriters. As Practical Typography says,

Underlining is another dreary typewriter habit. Typewriters had no bold or italic styling. So the only way to emphasize text was to back up the carriage and type underscores be­neath the text. It was a workaround for shortcomings in typewriter technology.

Please stop underlining headings, unless you want to prove that you’re old-fashioned.

Old vs. new style of headings

Sample 1

This is what headings and text sometimes looked like in the old days:

Heading

This is the text under the heading.

Sample 2

Here’s an easy, more modern style of heading:

Heading

This is the text under the heading.

When you compare the Sample 1 with the Sample 2, which is makes it easier for you to focus on the heading? It’s Sample 2.

That ease is important in encouraging readers to skim—rather than abandon—your content. That’s important now that everyone’s attention spans have shortened. If they continue skimming, perhaps they’ll find a heading that tempts them to dig into the details of what you’ve written.

Use heading styles built into your software

If you only have one level of headings in your document, it’s easy to make them all bold. But what if you have different levels of headings? You’re most likely to need multiple levels in a long document like a white paper.

Different heading styles are built into many types of software.

For example, here is one style you can find in Microsoft Word’s ribbon:
Style ribbon in Microsoft Word

 

 

Here’s what these styles might look like in a document:

Word heading style sample

 

You can learn more about using styles in Microsoft Word on Microsoft’s help page, starting with “Show or hide the ribbon in Office.” (Depending on your version of Word, your steps to find and apply headings may differ.)

Styles can get pretty fancy, but I tend to stick with the basics. I prefer to devote more time to writing than design.

Microsoft Office isn’t the only software with different styles for headings. You’ll also find them in WordPress. Here’s an explanation of headings in WordPress.

AP StyleGuard: the answer to your proofreading prayers?

How can I create a document that’s free of errors and consistent in its usage? When I accepted a job editing a magazine that said it uses AP style, I figured that AP StyleGuard software might be the answer to my prayers.

Does AP StyleGuard deliver? Yes and no. It has pros and cons.

The software doesn’t say that it’s one-size-fits-all for your proofreading needs. The features list on its website promises that it:

  1. Helps you to avoid using redundant words or over-used words.
  2. Helps you to catch capitalization and punctuation issues
  3. Catches style issues that escape the spell and grammar checkers in Microsoft Word
  4. Helps you to identify issues such as “Should this be one word, two words, or hyphenated?
  5. Provides common unit conversions within the document
  6. Provides possible abbreviations and checks for correct abbreviation rules.

Pros of AP StyleGuard

1. Automatic checking of compliance with AP style

If you’re writing for an organization or publication that follows AP style, this software will automatically highlight your style mistakes. You can fix each mistake with a simple click, assuming that you agree with the software’s suggested correction. As you’ll see later, agreeing with the software’s suggested correction is an issue for me.

2. Access to the online version of the latest AP Stylebook

AP style changes over time. With an AP StyleGuard subscription, you always have access to the latest guidelines.

3. Integration with Microsoft Word

After installing the software on your computer, it appears as part of the ribbon at the top of your Microsoft Word documents.

AP StyleGuard in Microsoft Word ribbon

 

What I like best about this software

  • In addition to helping me comply with AP style, it helps me to standardize my usage on topics such as whether to use “work force” or “workforce.AP StyleGuard on work force vs. workforce
  • I can eliminate excess spaces after periods with one click.

 

Cons of AP StyleGuard

1. Inability to customize for your publication’s style

The magazine that I write for uses a modified version of AP style. Our modified version includes using the serial comma and using the spelling “advisor” instead of “adviser,” which is preferred by AP. (I’ve blogged about the advisor vs. adviser debate).

As you can imagine, our practices trigger lots of false alerts in the software. I spend a lot of time clicking to ignore these style rules. Some software, including—I believe—AP Lingofy, let you customize your styles. PerfectIt Pro, software that I’ve used in the past, lets you create multiple style sheets. That could help writers like me who work with multiple clients with different style preferences.

2. Mistaken flagging of “mistakes”

AP style thinks that VA is short for the Veterans Affairs, not a variable annuity

Whenever I write use “VA” as an abbreviation for “variable annuity,” the software scolds me that I should spell out “Veterans Affairs.”  No, I won’t do it. I also have a problem when I write about AA-rated bonds.

Styleguard suggests replacing the AA in AA-rated bonds with Alcoholics Anonymous

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Failure to catch some apparent style errors

The software doesn’t flag ever instance of what seem to me like style errors.

For example, the sentence below is inconsistent in how it uses an en-dash, an em-dash, and the space around those dashes. AP StyleGuard doesn’t see any problem with it.

But what else could you—or I – do?

The phrase “or I” should be set off by two en-dashes or two em-dashes—not one of each. And the spacing should be consistent.

4. Microsoft Word freezes

Microsoft Word freezes way too often when I have StyleGuard enabled. Also, it seems to mess with my ability to enter Microsoft Word Comments into documents. I have a fairly new, powerful desktop computer with Word 2016 so I don’t think my hardware is the problem.

I minimize my problems by enabling StyleGuard only when I’m actively using it in my proofreading. So, if I’m proofreading four documents, I enable and disable StyleGuard four times. Luckily, this can’t be accomplished with a simple click in the ribbon above my Word document.

4. Lack of grammar checking

AP StyleGuard is not a grammar checker. It found nothing wrong with the sentence “They is coming.”

On the other hand, the software doesn’t claim to be a grammar checker. It’s simply checking for consistency with AP Style. Sometimes inconsistencies are also grammar mistakes.

5. Annual fee

You must pay an annual fee for the software. Of course, it does include the updated version of the AP Stylebook. You do get something for your annual investment.

Will I renew?

Will I renew my subscription to AP StyleGuard? I’m not sure. If I think the Stylebook updates are worth it, I may look at Lingofy for its customization options.

On the other hand, I may consider going back to PerfectIt Pro or doing research on other alternatives. PerfectIt Pro is a one-time purchase, at least until they do a major revamp of the software.

What software do YOU recommend?

I’m curious to hear about your experience with proofreading, grammar, and usage software. What do you recommend—and why?

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Mix up your style with this writing exercise

Could tweaking your style make your articles, blog posts, and white papers more effective? Try the writing exercise I describe below. The results may surprise you.

In Stylish Academic Writing, author Helen Sword proposes a writing exercise in which you first evaluate something you’ve written in terms of the chart below.

writing-exercise-table

 

In other words:

  1. Does it use the first person (see column A)?
  2. Does it use a personal or impersonal voice (see column B)?
  3. Is it subjective or objective (see column C)?
  4. Is it formal or informal (see column D)?

Answering these questions will help you to understand your starting point.

The next step in Sword’s writing exercise? She says:

What happens if you change one or two of these variables? For example, if you usually write in a third-person, impersonal, objective, formal mode, introduce I or we and see how you feel about the results.

Writing exercise: my sample rewrites

For example, let’s rewrite my first paragraph without any pronouns. Here’s the result, which I’ll call Alternative #1:

When writers tweak their style, does it make their articles, blog posts, and white papers more effective? The writing exercise below will help writers to test that hypothesis. The results may surprise the participants.

Now, here’s Alternative #2:

Hey, want to write more effectively? Dump your old habits and replace them with a new style!

What do you think about the writing exercise results?

Comparing my initial paragraph with Alternatives #1 and #2, which is the most engaging? Do you find one more convincing than the other? More credible?

I like the leanness of #2, but it doesn’t sound like me. Still, it does make me wonder if I could streamline my introduction. It’s good for me to challenge myself. You can benefit, too.

Speaking of leanness, you can assess whether your text is lean or flabby using the tool I discuss in “Editing tool: the Writer’s Diet.” Helen Sword, the author of Stylish Academic Writing, designed the tool.

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Writing tip: being too precise can bloat your writing

Don’t write in a way that’s too precise. It’ll make your prose unnecessarily long.

Example of being too precise

My husband reminded me of this when proofreading my December e-newsletter. I had written “As the end of 2016 nears.” He changed it to “As 2016 ends.” Good call, dear hubby!

I’d been concerned that December 6, the date on which I’d send my newsletter, wasn’t in the last week of the month. My husband understood that—in the context of my newsletter—it was good enough to see December as the end of the year.

This example demonstrates why it’s helpful to have an outside copyeditor. They can see things that you can’t because you’re too immersed in your work.

Precision helps sometimes

Being precise isn’t always bad. Sometimes it can condense your sentences, as when you write “December” instead of “the last month of the year.”

 

 

Underline your way to less financial jargon

Using less financial jargon is a goal that most writers can agree on. But how can you get there? Reading Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, a book that’s useful for non-academics, too, gave me an idea.

Here’s a suggestion from Sword:

If you suspect that you suffer from jargonitis, start by measuring the scope of your addiction. Print out a sample of your academic writing and highlight every word that would not be immediately comprehensible to a reader from outside your own discipline.

Underlining the jargon would also be a great first step for financial writers. But simply underlining what you perceive as jargon won’t get you to your goal of using less financial jargon. I  have some suggestions for you.

1. Ask a member of your target audience to help

Your perception of jargon and your target audience’s perception may differ. For example, in a comment on my post, “Words to avoid in your investment communications with regular folks,” Dan Sondhelm said, “I teach portfolio managers to not say anything to do with a ‘bet’ or ‘exposure.’ ” Those words—especially “bet,” a one-syllable word that’s widely used by regular folks—may not sound like jargon to a financial project. However, in context, a member of your target audience may be confused.

To get a sense of your target audience’s perception, ask one of them to underline words in your sample. Don’t specify that they’re looking for jargon. Instead, ask  them to underline words that they’re not sure they understand in your context.

If your volunteer doesn’t underline much, perhaps they’re embarrassed to reveal their ignorance. Another test is to say, “Please explain this text in your own words.” If they parrot back your vocabulary, you must be using jargon—or writing in a way that’s difficult to understand. Either way, you’ve gained valuable feedback.

2. Rewrite your sample’s jargon-heavy sentences in at least two different ways

Play around with different ways to rewrite your jargon-heavy sentences. Then, let your rewrite sit overnight, at a minimum. The ideas will marinate in your head while you wait.

You may come up with your best rewrite on your last attempt.

I know you can’t invest this much time into writing every time. But doing it occasionally will shake up the way you think about writing.

3. Look up jargon in dictionaries or glossaries

Sometimes people use jargon because they don’t understand their topic well enough to use plain language.

Looking up jargon in one of the online resources I mention in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication” (see point #4. Provide a glossary), will help you to understand it. Then, you can replace the jargon with wording that your readers can grasp.

YOUR suggestions for using less financial jargon?

I’m curious to hear your suggestions for cutting the amount of jargon in financial writing.

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

 

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.