Top posts from 2018’s fourth quarter

Check out my top posts from the last quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on writing (#1, #4, #5, #9, #10), blog (#2), proofreading (#3), investment commentary (#6), newsletter (#7), and grammar (#8). If you’d like to quickly improve your writing, check out #1! The #2 post is a practical checklist for writing more than just blog posts.

I’m only listing one Mistake Monday post, although more were among the most viewed, because one Mistake Monday post is much like the others. Check out my Mistake Monday posts if you’d like to improve your proofreading skills!

My posts that attracted the most views during 2018’s fourth quarter

  1. 5 things my English teachers failed to teach me
  2. Financial blog post test—do you pass?
  3. MISTAKE MONDAY for December 24: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?
  4. Down with (The Index) parenthetical notes!
  5. My 2018 reading, with recommendations for you
  6. My best tip for improving your investment commentary
  7. The e-newsletter problem you don’t know about
  8. Being right about grammar isn’t always good enough
  9. Write like an effective lawyer
  10. 4-step process to define your audience

Don’t fix your grammar

Want to write well? Then, don’t fix your grammar. I don’t mean don’t ever fix your grammar. I mean that you shouldn’t fix your grammar too early in the writing process.

I thought about this when reading How to Write and Present Technical Information by Charles H. Sides. He says,

Often writers get overly concerned about the nit-picking details of grammar and punctuation in a document before they have got it written clearly.

Sides say this means we writers “will not change what we should, and the read will suffer for it.” In other words, the writer won’t fix big-picture errors of logic and organization.

I’m a big believer in starting the writing process by organizing your thoughts. That should be your top priority in the beginning. In the early stages, grammar is a distraction.

Here’s the process that I suggest:

  1. Organize your thoughts before you write.
  2. Write your first draft.
  3. Do “big picture” editing to fix the article’s organization and flow.
  4. Do line editing. This is the stage when you fix grammar and other writing style issues.

Of course, it’s easier said than done to leave grammar tweaks to the end. One way I prevent myself from tinkering too soon is by writing the first drafts of some blog posts by hand, as discussed in “No batteries required: My favorite blogging technique.”

If you like more help developing your writing process, read my book Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, or take my on-demand financial blogging class.


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

Make your bullet-pointed lists more powerful

“Articles” that rely heavily on bullet-pointed lists can overwhelm readers. Their attention flags after three or four bullets. I call this “bullet fatigue.” However, you can boost the power of your lists with this tip.

Two easy steps to better lists

Knowing about bullet fatigue, you can break up an article that consists mainly of a long bullet-pointed list into separate lists. Here are the steps:

  1. Group the bullet points by topic. Make your topics narrow enough that, ideally, no more than three or four bullets apply. It’s OK to go longer if each bullet point consists of only one or two words.
  2. Write a topic sentence that introduces each group of bullet points.

Better results from your lists

The result? You end up with a multi-paragraph article that is easy for readers to skim because its topic sentences identify the focus of each group of bullet points. Your results will soar with a minimal investment of time.

Wondering about how to punctuate bullet-pointed lists?

I’ve discussed this in “How to punctuate bullet-pointed lists.

Bloggers, start with what interests you the most

In the first of her The Writing Coach podcasts, Rebecca Weber mentioned that she often starts an article by writing the part that interests her the most. Then, she says, it’s easy for her to fill in the other parts, especially if she already has an outline. That’s a great way to overcome writer’s block, in my opinion. It may also be a great way to find a new focus for your blog post.

Benefit from your passion

Blog posts benefit from passion. For starters, you’re more likely to enjoy writing them. That cuts your tendency to procrastinate.

Also, when you write about what interests you, you’re likely to convey your enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm will give your readers a better sense of who you are. If they care about the same things—or if they like your positive energy—you will captivate your readers.

Perhaps there’s more that you can say about that topic to develop it into a complete blog post. Not sure how to expand your topic? Try mind mapping or freewriting, both of which are discussed in my financial blogging book. See where those techniques take you.

Avoid turning off readers

If parts of your outline touch upon topics that don’t excite you, that may deaden the tone of your writing. Your readers may pick up on your lack of enthusiasm. That’s a turn-off.

Of course, there are times when you can’t avoid writing about dull stuff. After all, some of it is essential.

Do your best to write in a reader-friendly manner. Focus on the benefits to the reader, and you may still achieve good results.

Another take on refining your focus

I’ve written about the usefulness of pursuing your interests from a different angle in “Writing tip: Pop the balloon or make it your focus.”

Down with (“The Index”) parenthetical notes!

Have you noticed how many financial documents have unnecessary parenthetical notes? I mean phrases like the XYZ Fund (“The Fund”) or The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (“The Index”). Those parenthetical references strike me as unnecessary. However, I assumed that lawyers insisted on those parenthetical references.

Parenthetical notes NOT required by law

To my surprise, I found two respected legal stylists arguing against such parenthetical notes. Here’s what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Elements of Legal Style, wrote in Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges.

Give the reader credit for having a brain—and show that you have one, too… If your brief repeatedly refers to the Secretary of Transportation and mentions no other Secretary, it is silly to specify parenthetically the first time you mention the Secretary of Transportation “(hereinafter ‘The Secretary’).” No one will think that your later references to “The Secretary” denotes the Secretary of Defense, or perhaps your own secretary.

In  short, you don’t need those parenthetical references to (“The Fund”) and (“The Index”). Of course, you should consult with your firm’s legal and compliance professionals before eliminating them. Unfortunately, however, it’s rare for legal and compliance departments to get in trouble for saying no to simplification requests.

I hope this quote from Scalia and Garner will help you purge these parenthetical references from your publications.

Some parenthetical notes work

However, sometimes parenthetical references are good, as I explain in “Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical.”


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

My 2018 reading, with recommendations for you

Here are some of the books I read (or referred to) in 2018, divided by categories. I hope you find something useful in my reading.


The Million-Dollar One-Person Business: Make Great Money, Work the Way You Like, Have the Life You Want by Elaine Pofeldt has an over-the-top title, but some good advice on picking a focus for your business and prioritizing.

Here’s one quote that I liked:

Uncovering an idea that you will enjoy thinking about every day—whether that is when you are writing copy for your website or answering a customer’s question about it—is the secret.

I feel that way about writing. I doubt that I’m going to turn my writing into a million-dollar business, but I could become more efficient with Pofeldt’s tips.

Personal finance

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine—Levine’s story about her year of living frugally may give you ideas for topics to blog about. At one point, she’s wearing $15 Nike slides, and writes, “Next to the vacationer strolling down the $40,000-a-night beach in her diamond flip-flops, I am Gandhi.”

Personal organization

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson—Like many people, I sometimes receive gifts that I don’t need or want. I liked this statement by Magnusson:

If you receive things you don’t really want from your parents or someone else who wants to reduce the number of their possessions in their home, you should be honest and say, “No, thank you. I don’t have room for this.” Just moving things someone does not want in their house to your house is not a good solution for anyone.”

Garner's Modern American Usage

Reference books for writers

These two references will always be on my reading list.

* Associated Press Stylebook by Associated Press

* Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner—This has become a “go to” reference for me.

Upbeat books

Some people can be upbeat in the face of challenges that overwhelm others. Here are some examples.

Dying: a memoir by Cory Taylor—Taylor wrote this book in the year before she died from cancer. Anticipating her death, she says, “…my circumstances were less a cause for sorrow than an opportunity to feel thankful for my unearned good fortune.”

Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly by Isaac Lidsky—Lidsky’s TED talk, “What reality are you creating for yourself?” is on my to do list, but I may never get to it because I prefer written to video content. Lidsky went blind, and built a successful career. I liked the first part of the book, where he tells his personal story, the best. The book isn’t as compelling when he speaks more broadly about how you can apply the lessons from his life.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide by Toni Bernhard—Bernhard has a friendliness practice. She says, “When I leave the house, I resolve to be friendly to everyone I see, including people I don’t know. I look at each person who comes into view and silently say, ‘May you have a lovely day’ or ‘I hope this day will be fun for you.'” I’d like to try this. As Bernhard says, “Kindness to another person, even if we only offer a heartfelt smile, takes us out of being preoccupied with out own lives.” Is there anyone who couldn’t benefit from that?


How to Write and Present Technical Information by Charles H. Sides. This book has inspired some posts for my blog.

Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges by Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner. I refer to this book in several 2018 blog posts.

Looking for more recommendations?

For more recommendations, see my reading list from 2017.

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

4-step process to define your audience

Do you take the time to define the audience for whom you’re writing? Writers who don’t do this before writing may produce content that doesn’t hit the mark. On this blog, and in my financial blogging book, I suggest how to narrow down your audience. However, I’m always looking for new approaches. That’s why I was intrigued by the chapter on “How to Define Your Audience” in How to Write and Present Technical Information by Charles H. Sides.

Here’s how Sides approaches this challenge:

My systematic method for audience definition is divided into four processes: (1) defining who the readers are; (2) defining what the readers know; (3) defining what the readers need to know; (4) defining what the readers will do with the information.

Sides talks about his processes in the context of the technology industry where, as he says, “Because of the daily technological advances in high-tech industries, you are often writing in a vacuum without specific knowledge about your intended readers.” That challenge isn’t unique to technology. Financial writers often lack contact with their targets, a challenge I address in “How to capture investment client questions when you lack access?

Let’s look at the Sides method in the context of financial services.

1. Define who your readers are

For example, are your readers potential clients? If so, are they individuals or institutions?  Or, are you targeting the press, social media influencers, referral sources, students, professors, or members of your own organization? Are your readers members of one narrowly defined group, or are you targeting a mix of groups?

As Sides says, “Readers come to a document with different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge about the subject, and different needs for the information that is provided.” he suggest that, among other things, you look at the professional and educational backgrounds of your readers. For example, a recent college graduate who majored in finance will respond differently from a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in Japanese history who will respond differently from a Japanese history Ph.D. who has also earned the CFA credential and worked for an investment management firm (like me).

2. Define what your audience knows about your topic

Your readers’ educational and professional backgrounds will give you a general idea of what they know about your topic. However, they may not know many specifics about the narrow topic that you’re writing about.

In the tech context, Sides says, “they may know a good deal about game-design architecture, but would need to be led clearly through a report about a new kind of virtual reality (VR) headset that your firm has developed.” In an investment context, an international stock analyst is knowledgeable about non-U.S. stocks in general, but may not know about the frontier market where your firm is pioneering investments.

Sides suggests that you ask yourself how much background is necessary to introduce your topic. On the one hand, you don’t want to bore or insult your readers with overly basic information. On the other hand, you may lose many readers if you don’t provide some basic information. I’ve written about how to manage this challenge in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication.”

3. Define what your audience needs to know

Sides suggests two useful questions for this step:

  • What information does your audience need from your report or paper to do their jobs better?
  • Will the information that’s included need a technical slant or a managerial slant, a marketing or public relations slant?

Your answers to the first question will help you to delete unnecessary information. Your answers to the second question will help you focus your writing.

4.  Define what your audience will do with your information

For example, will your readers use the information to perform professional tasks, such as picking specific investments? Or, are they simply using your information to increase their knowledge of the field?

Summing up

Sides concludes that “We might not always tell readers what they want to hear, but we should always give them what they need—and should want—to know.” To achieve that, it helps to define your audience.

I like his philosophy.


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

5 things my English teachers failed to teach me

I was a B student in my high school English classes. But even if I’d been a star, I doubt I would have emerged from high school as a strong writer. Looking back, I see five things my English teachers failed to teach me about writing.

1. It’s OK to give away your main points in your introduction

My English teachers taught me about the importance of building an argument. They got that right.

However, they put so much emphasis on the argument that they overlooked the importance of a strong introduction.

I’m a big believer in giving away your conclusion in your introduction. When you tell your readers your main points in the beginning, you prepare your readers to seek and absorb the supporting evidence. I believe that you make them more receptive to your argument.

2. Wordiness is not a virtue

My high school English teachers failed to curb my long-winded sentences. I wish they had. It has taken me years to make my writing more concise.

People’s attention spans are short. In fact, they’re even shorter now that people do much of their reading on tiny phone screens, instead of printed materials like when I was in high school.

Shorter is better in terms of overall length, as well as the length of paragraphs, sentences, and even words.

3. “Which” and “that” are different

When I opened my Ph.D. dissertation to a random page, I found the following sentence misusing “which.”

Perhaps it was this accomplishment which led Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo to say of Goto, during the summer of 1932, “he smells of the Minseito, but as an agriculture minister he is splendid, serious, and able to accomplish his work.”

The “which” in that sentence should be “that.” For an explanation, see “Which vs. that: Which is right?

And, yikes, the example also illustrates how I was unaware of lesson #2.

4. Don’t use “pride capitals”

True confession: my Ph.D. thesis advisor put a lot of effort into breaking me of the habit of “pride capitals,” a lesson I failed to learn in high school or college.

While I correctly used capitals in my example above referring to Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, I probably referred elsewhere to Takahashi, the Finance Minister. That’s wrong.

5. Don’t leave two spaces after periods

To be fair, two spaces after periods was the standard back in my high school days. But times have changed. Today, one space after a period is standard, although somewhat controversial.

What did YOUR English teachers fail to teach you?

I’m curious. What do you wish your English teachers had taught you?

Let’s be fair to my English teachers

I think my high school English teachers did a decent job, given the curriculum and expectations of their time. I don’t think my English teachers failed overall.

They taught me well enough that I wrote reports that earned As in Advanced Placement Social Studies. My writing got me into college, where I took no more English classes. So, I must credit my high school English teachers with giving me writing skills good enough to get me into graduate school at Harvard.

Top posts from 2018’s third quarter

Check out my top posts from the last quarter!top posts

They’re a mix of practical tips on newsletters (#1), marketing (#2), spelling (#3), punctuation (#4), investment commentary (#5), writing (#6, #7, #8, #10), and PR (#9).

I’m only listing one Mistake Monday post, although more were among the most viewed, because one Mistake Monday post is much like the others. Check out my Mistake Monday posts if you’d like to improve your proofreading skills!

My posts that attracted the most views during 2018’s third quarter

  1. Do NOT send your newsletter via your email

  2. 4 tips for mutual fund fact sheet templates

  3. MISTAKE MONDAY for Jul.23: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

  4. Why there’s no apostrophe in writers room

  5. Investment commentary—5 ways to outsource

  6. Writing and preventable mistakes
  7. George Orwell’s writing rules and financial writing

  8. I.e. versus e.g.—which is correct?

  9. Quit sending irrelevant press releases!

  10. Break it up!