Red tulip writing exercise

Want to think creatively about your next article or blog post? Try the red tulip exercise that I discovered in Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing.

Here’s an exercise that Sword suggests for “generating new ideas and perspectives” for academic writing, but you can apply it to other types of writing:

Ask a friend, relative, or small child to write down the name of a randomly chosen object—something specific enough that you can actually picture it: a fat dachshund, a red tulip. Freewrite for ten minutes about all the ways that object resembles your research project.

Freewriting means writing nonstop, without editing, for a predetermined period of time. After you finish, you look at what you’ve written to see what’s valuable in it.

red tulip writing exercise

My freewriting about a red tulip

I did a freewriting exercise about blog posts and a red tulip. You can read the results in “5 ways a blog post is like a tulip.” In case you don’t believe that I really did the freewriting exercise, here’s a picture of what I wrote.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy, “Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration,” my wacky way to generate ideas for blog posts. That post was inspired by a photo of a Barbie on a beach.


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.

Writing question: how do you know when you have too many details?

How do you know when you have too many details in your writing? That question from a participant in my investment commentary webinar made me think of these six tips. Try them if your writing gets bogged down by details.

1. Go with your gut

Seasoned writers rely on their instincts to know when they’ve stuffed too much into their drafts. They look at the rhythm of the piece or simply go with their guts. That’s fine for experienced writers who’ve honed their instincts through feedback from teachers or editors. But it’s not much help for non-professional writers. That’s why I provide more suggestions for identifying when you have too many details.

2. Word count

How long is your draft and its components? To oversimply, if you’ve written a 20,000-word blog post or a 1,000-word sidebar, it’s too long. It probably includes too many details.

3. What advances your argument?

Too many details may overwhelm your readers instead of convincing them. To cut the excess, ask “What’s the absolutely minimum of details that will make my point?”

Pare your story back to the basics. If it’s compelling, you’re finished.

4. Rule of Three

Examples work better in groups of three as I discussed in “What number of examples is ideal for persuasion?” Do your examples comply with the Rule of Three?

The Rule of Three isn’t an absolute. There’ll be many times when more is better. But it’s a way to filter for easy cuts to your excessive details.

5. Ask what your readers want

Do you have family or friends who are members of your target audience? Show them your draft. Ask them for feedback, including suggestions for what you can cut.

6. Are your sections balanced?

If your piece has three sections and one section is way longer than the others, it’s possible that section is too long. But that’s not always the case. Use your judgment.

Your suggestions?

If you have suggestions for how to recognize when your writing has too many details, please let me know.

Image courtesy of iosphere at

What would happen if I stop writing?

Many of you struggle to write as much as you’d like. The large number of inactive financial blogs speaks to the difficulty of writing and posting weekly (or at any frequency). That’s especially true when you face demanding responsibilities as an investment, wealth management, or financial planning professional.

This struggle is why I suggest that you ask yourself  “What would happen if I stop writing?

When it’s okay to stop writing

Your answer might be, “Nothing bad.”

A “nothing bad” answer is more likely if you have colleagues who can pick up the slack to satisfy your firm’s writing needs.

Or, maybe you’re working on a 25-page white paper on an obscure topic. If few people would read—or be spurred to action by—your output, it’s okay to stop writing. You could benefit from using your time for higher-benefit activities. This is the kind of situation I wrote about in “Marketing lesson from clashing clocks.”

If your answer is “nothing bad,” then stop beating yourself up. Use the time and emotional energy that you save for goals that energize and help you.

When you shouldn’t stop writing

What if you’d lose something by not writing?

Financial professionals who write regularly have told me about the benefits they experience. Understanding the benefits may inspire you to make time to write.

Sometimes the benefits go to the bottom line. For example, a student enrolled in my financial blogging class because he wanted to return to blogging regularly. He said that his blog yielded many leads when he posted regularly, but the leads dried up when he stopped posting.

Often the benefits are less direct. For example, you can rarely attribute a sale directly to a great white paper about an emerging asset class. But you know that it enhances your firm’s credibility and makes it easier for salespeople to spur discussions with prospects.

Another benefit of writing is that it helps you to clarify your thoughts about other people’s ideas, as you explain your take on their ideas to your audience. Also, writing more helps you to improve your writing. These issues came up directly or indirectly in my survey about why advisors blog. Here is how people responded to my asking “What are the goals of your blog?”

  • 23% Educate people
  • 19% Attract clients
  • 15% Improve my writing
  • 15% Spread my ideas
  • 12% Learn from others
  • 8% Keep the clients I have
  • 8% Sell information products
  • 0% Other

If you resist my suggestion to stop writing…

Feel appalled by my suggestion that you stop writing? In your gut reaction, there’s a kernel of something that may spur you to write more. Look for it!

If you think a structured process could help you to write more, check out my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, and my financial blogging class.

Powerful financial article abstracts

How do you get the most out of your financial article abstracts? I’m not talking about executive summaries for white papers. I mean formal abstracts that appear at the start of journal articles.

To supercharge your financial article abstracts, you need to know your goal. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword got me thinking about what your goal should be. She says:

The purpose of a scholarly abstract is not merely to summarize an article’s content, but to persuade one’s discipline-based peers that the research is important and the article is therefore worth reading.

One way that authors strive to assert the importance of their research is to say that it “will plug a ‘gap” in the existing scholarship,” as Sword says. Surely this is important.

But, Sword argues that starting “human conversations” in abstracts may be even more important. “Authors who adopt an impersonal ‘academic’ tone are neglecting one of the most powerfully persuasive tools at the stylish writer’s disposal: the human touch,” she says.

One way to do that is to give “a voice and presences to human subjects,” Sword says. To do this in finance, you might write about the people affected by your research.

Another way is to write in the first person. Use “I” or “we,” instead of writing impersonally.

Sword also pushes for “clear, comprehensible language” in both your abstract and the body of your academic paper.

Another suggestion for your abstract: Describe “not only its what but its why.” Sword asks, “What is the main point of your article, dissertation, or book?” Also, “Why is it important, whether to you or to anyone else?” These are great questions for the writers of any document.

Check out Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing isn’t just for academics. It offers advice that will help any nonfiction writer. It also sparked several posts on this blog.


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.

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?


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

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:


This is the text under the heading.

Sample 2

Here’s an easy, more modern style of 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.