Your childhood writing and your future as a writer

What can your childhood writing experiences tell you about your future as a writer? The haircut I gave the life-sized doll from my childhood accurately predicted that I have no aptitude as a hair stylist (see the scary photo below). Can childhood experiences also predict our writing skills as adults?

my doll after her haircut

Childhood writing indicators

Mulling it over, I see the following potential indicators of your future as a writer:

  • Your grades in English classes
  • The encouragement you received for your writing
  • The quality of your writing
  • Your skill with words and writing
  • Your love (or dislike) of writing

Were these good predictors for me?

My childhood didn’t instill in me a belief that I would become a reasonably good writer.

I believe I was a B-average student in my high school English class. Back then, social studies classes were my strong point (as you may know, I eventually earned a Ph.D. in Japanese history). As a high school senior, my heroes were Edwin Reischauer, Japanese historian and ambassador to Japan, and modern dancer Martha Graham. Nobody encouraged me to write—probably because I was an average writer. Looking back at later examples of my writing, as I did in “Confessions of a lousy writer—and 6 tips for you,” I feel confident that I didn’t show promise as a writer.

However, I wrote a lot as a kid. I filled many spiral-bound notebooks with my journaling. I also wrote a long fairy tale with a hero named Zoogoo. I slipped into another world when I wrote. Even today, I feel a similar sense of complete absorption when I write these blog posts. I feel satisfaction from sorting out my thoughts, even though I’m not tackling topics of lasting importance.

Childhood writing vs. adult writing

I think the good feelings I got from writing were the best predictor of my future as a writer. Through study and practice, I was eventually able to overcome my weaknesses as a writer.

What about YOU? What does your childhood writing experience tell you about your writing as an adult?

 

Does your article pass these writing tests?

Are you thinking of writing an article or blog post, but feel insecure about your skill as a writer? I’ve developed some tests that can help you attract readers in a way that’s easy to read. Give your article the tests that I describe below. These writing tests can also help your other communications aimed at clients, prospects, and referral sources.

WIIFM test

How can you cut through the clutter of the gazillion articles competing for your readers’ attention?

When your article appeals to your readers’ WIIFM, you command their attention. WIIFM is short for “What’s In It For Me?” You need to describe how readers will benefit from the content in your article. Ideally, you’ll help them to solve a problem.

It’s best if you introduce your readers’ problem – and your solution – in words that they would use. Drop the jargon unless it’s part of your readers’ daily vocabulary. To help you achieve this, fill in the blanks in the following sentence: “I’m worried about … and you can help me by …”

You pass the WIIFM test when your readers see that you can fill in the blanks in my sentence.

First-sentence check

When your articles are easy to skim, your message will reach more readers than if your articles require careful attention.

To perform the first-sentence check, read your headings and the first sentence of every paragraph in your article. In combination, do they give the reader a good idea of your main points? If so, you’ve written something that’s easy to skim. It’s also more likely to draw in readers interested in your topic.

This first-sentence check works because strong business writing typically starts each paragraph with a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph’s main point or topic. When I’ve done writing workshops, participants tell me this is one of the biggest ideas they’ve picked up.

When an article fails the first-sentence check, it’s time to rearrange your paragraphs, rewrite your topic sentences, or rethink how you approach your topic. For more on this approach, read “Quick check for writers, with an economic commentary example.”

Rule of 42-14-2

Wordy writing is difficult to read. Direct marketers’ research suggest that your readership starts to drop once your articles average more than 42 words per paragraph, 14 words per sentence, or two syllables per word. This is according to research cited in workshops by Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications.

Microsoft Word’s readability statistics will give you an idea of how your writing fares in terms of these statistics. The analytical tool at HemingwayApp.com (discussed in “Free help for wordy writers!“) can also help you identify text that’s too long-winded and give you ideas about how to simplify.

You don’t necessarily have to pare your averages down to 42, 14, and two. But becoming more aware of wordiness, and shortening your sentences and paragraphs, will make your writing more effective.

Too busy to test your writing?

If you’re too busy to test your writing, ask for outside editorial help. Perhaps you have a colleague or a client who can give you feedback. You can also hire an editor.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Glossaries for investment and economic jargon

What can you do if you want to purge jargon from your vocabulary, but you don’t know how to explain investment and economic jargon in plain language? Glossaries can help.

Online glossaries of investment and economic terms

Here are some online options:

Another option is to search in Google, as I explain in “Resources to help you cut through investment jargon.”

A printed glossary

If you prefer to use a printed book, the Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms from Barron’s is a classic.

How to use glossary explanations

I suggest that you read the glossaries’ explanations, and then explain the relevant concepts in your own words.

If you copy a glossary’s explanation, please credit the glossary.

If you’re publishing something online, consider linking to an online definition. This is especially useful if only a small number of your target readers won’t understand the term. I wrote about this in “Help your readers by linking to definitions.”

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.

Top posts from 2018’s first quarter

Check out my top posts from the last quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on proofreading (#1), punctuation (#2), white papers (#3), writing (#4, #5, #7, #8, #9), marketing (#6), and blogging (#10).

I’m only listing one Mistake Monday post, although more were among the most viewed. Thank you, readers! However, one Mistake Monday post is much like the others, so I’ll only list one per quarter. Check out my Mistake Monday posts if you’d like to improve your proofreading skills!

White papers (#3) were the focus of my meatiest popular post. Many challenges prevent financial professionals from creating compelling white papers. In this post I describe some of the challenges and how to overcome them.

The popular post in the #2 slot proves that popularity isn’t the only thing that matters for your blog. I imagine that the traffic came from people doing online searches for “U.S. or US for United States?” I imagine that few of those people are likely to become my clients—or even to be interested in many of the other posts on my blog.

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

  1. MISTAKE MONDAY for Feb. 19: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?
  2. Abbreviation: U.S. or US for United States?
  3. The compelling investment white paper that wasn’t 
  4. What if your article has 5 points, but 1 is a digression?
  5. Avoid long introductory clauses, or lose readers
  6. Marketing wealth management to women with Charlotte Beyer
  7. 7 tips to help you write more and be a better person
  8. Write your book on multiple devices
  9. 7 factors that affect reading ease
  10. Financial blog topic: write a letter

Does the end come before the beginning?

getting-things-as-right-as-you-canI was intrigued by the following tip in Draft No. 4, a book written by John McPhee, a staff writer for The New Yorker.

I settled on an ending before going back to the beginning.

It’s always good to have the ending in mind before you start a draft. That will take you to your destination more efficiently. However, McPhee does some work before he settles on his ending.

What to do when you’re “wallowing” in notes

Earlier in his chapter on “Structure,” he wrote about a time when he was “wallowing” in notes. Rather than plunge into writing, he organized his notes into piles. But he started that process only after generating a lead sentence. On one occasion,

I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence: “The citizen had certain misgivings.”

That process sounds familiar to me. That’s how I organized my notes from my Ph.D. dissertation. I wrote about that in “Index-card approach to writing.” I wish I could say that I, like McPhee, had my ending in mind before I spread my index cards on my floor. However, aside from chronological order, I didn’t have a good idea of where I was going.

Today I’d use mind mapping, which I discuss in Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients to organize my thoughts. When I wrote my financial blogging book, I started with posts written for my blog. I also did a bit of mind mapping to decide on the order of my chapters, though I also tweaked the order based on feedback from my writing group.

Knowing the end makes it easier to edit

When writing something short, like a blog post, it’s much easier to start with the end in mind like McPhee, knowing your destination makes it easier to decide what information to keep. You can prune anything that doesn’t lead to your destination.

The next time you write something, try to figure out its ending before you start writing.

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.

No more conclusions, please

Every inch of your article, white paper, or other publication is valuable real estate. Don’t waste it by using a heading like “Conclusion.”

Why skip saying “conclusion”

Your readers scan your publications to see if they’re worth reading. This is especially true of your blog posts and other online publications.

Readers look at headings to see if you’re saying something interesting. The heading “Conclusion” tells them nothing about your thoughts.

It’s much more effective to share your high-level conclusion in the final heading of your piece. You can tie your heading to the next step your reader should take.

If you must put “conclusion” in your heading, I suggest you follow it with a subheading. For example, “Conclusion: Quit using ‘conclusion’ as a heading.”

Disagreement about conclusion

Neil Patel, a guest blogger on HubSpot, disagrees with me, at least when it comes to blog posts. He says, “In my opinion, the best conclusions are outright labeled ‘Conclusion,’ either with a header (as in my example below) or with the phrase ‘In conclusion.'” He didn’t persuade me.

However, I like most of Patel’s other recommendations in “8 Tips for Writing More Powerful Conclusions,” except for his suggestion that you end every blog post with some sort of summary. That’s overkill, in my view.

Stinging quotes from “Do I Make Myself Clear?”

Harold Evans wrote some great lines against bad writing in Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. Here are some of them, organized by topic.

If you can avoid making the mistakes he highlights, you can live up to his statement that “Good writers breathe a kiss of life into old dead facts.

I love the term “pussy footing passive,” which you’ll find in the section on the passive voice.

Passive voice

Evans says the passive voice “robs sentences of energy, adds unnecessary participles and prepositions, and leaves questions unanswered…

When you write in the passive voice, you can’t escape adding fat any more than you can escape piling on adipose tissue when you grab a doughnut.

However, Evans admits there are times when the passive voice is necessary. These cases include when the actor isn’t known, when the identity of the receiver of the action isn’t known, when the writer wants to conceal the actor (also known as the pussy footing passive, according to Evans’ citation of Edward Johnson), and when otherwise the verb would follow a long subject.

Negatives

Express even a negative in positive form…it is quicker and easier to understand what is than what is not.”

For example, say “Bond prices fell” instead of “Bond prices did not rise.”

Emphasize the impact on people

Put people first,” says Evans.

Eyes that glaze over at ‘a domestic accommodation energy-saving program’ will focus on ‘how to qualify for state money for insulating your house.’

Prepositions

The circumlocutory preposition is a fluffy substitute for a single preposition which gives the meaning as clearly. The grossest offenders are in the field of, in connection with, in order to, in respect of, so far as…is concerned.

Miscellaneous

The people who create and run companies aren’t stupid, but they put their names to statements that are management mumbo-jumbo, products of algorithms rather than thinking human beings.

If you like what Evans says…

I also quote Evans in “Avoid long introductory clauses, or lose readers.”

 

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.

7 factors that affect reading ease

On this blog—and in my writing workshops—I’ve written about things that affect reading ease. I’ve focused on the average number of syllables per word, words per sentence, and sentences per paragraph. However, Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, introduced me to a seven-factor list from Robert Gunning, creator of the fog index.

Factors that affect reading ease

Some of the seven factors relate to length. They’re similar to the syllable, sentence, and paragraph measures. They also feed into the fog index. Evans describes the fog index as follows:

If you want to be clear, count the average number of words in your sentences, count the number of words of three syllables (the percentage of hard words), total the two, and multiply by 0.4. The lower ranking on the fog index, the easier the reading…

The seven factors include:

  1. Average sentence length in words
  2. Percentage of simple sentences
  3. Percentage of strong verb forms
  4. Proportion of familiar words
  5. Proportion of abstract words
  6. Percentage of personal references
  7. Percentage of long words

Why do the other factors matter? I like #3, the percentage of strong verbs, and #4, the proportion of familiar words, because they typically make the writer’s intent easier to grasp.

I’m puzzled by #6, percentage of personal references.

As I see it, personal references could cut both ways. Requiring detailed knowledge of your personal life will make your writing harder to understand. On the other hand, comprehension will improve when you use “you” and referring to things your readers care about.

The fog index isn’t infallible

Gunning’s seven factors can help you assess your content’s reader-friendliness. But they’re not infallible.

As Evans says,

Combine readability statistics with common sense. You can write illogical nonsense and get a good score of readability; the classic proof is that if you enter your sample from the last word to the first, you get the same score. Metaphor, analogy, and satire are unrecognized, wit unappreciated. The formulas have tin ears for the rhythm of sentence variety, for word choice, for the energy in the writing.

Test your reading ease online

You can run your text through an online version of the fog index.

 

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.

Write your book on multiple devices

A reader asked, “Do you know a of a good, simple book-writing software or app that sits in the cloud that I could use on my desktop and mobile device?”

Some of my friends suggested using Scrivener (which you can use on multiple devices) and saving your file to Dropbox. You could also do the same with a Word document.

If you have other tips for people writing books, please let me know. If I ever write another book, I may join the multi-device writers club.

 

 

Writers, eat your greens!

Eat your greens! For many people, that means eating foods that they don’t enjoy, but which are good for them. In the writing world, I think a comparable challenge is proofreading your text and checking on fine points of grammar. Here are some steps I suggest to help you eat your metaphorical greens.

1. Finish your drafts early

When you finish writing something before its deadline, you can approach it with fresh eyes for a final review. With fresh eyes, you’re more likely to catch errors of reasoning, grammar, or other areas.

2. Use tools and people to help you proofread and copyedit

It’s not easy to proofread or copyedit your own work, as my husband reminds me when he proofreads my monthly newsletter.

Online tools that check your spelling, grammar, and wordiness can complement your work. My recent post on “The compelling white paper that wasn’t” includes links to tools.

However, online tools won’t catch every mistake. For example, it won’t catch the investment professional with the title “portfolio manger” instead of “portfolio manager” with the additional “a.” That’s why it’s good to get a colleague or professional proofreader to review your work. Also, consider using the tip I describe in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading” to catch errors that eyes tend to gloss over.

If organization—not grammar—is your stumbling block, use my first-sentence check.

3. Have reliable references handy

You can’t buy or find online one of the most powerful tools for catching your errors. That’s a customized checklist that lists your most common errors. For example, if you often make “Bloggers’ top two punctuation mistakes,” add them to your checklist.

My favorite online resources include:

If you have a budget, you can subscribe to online resources from AP Style or the Chicago Manual of Style. I have mixed feelings about AP Styleguard software.

You can’t find all of the answers online. That’s why my library includes “My five favorite reference books for writers.”

The result?

If you follow these three tips, you’ll produce cleaner, better organized writing. That’ll make your writing more compelling and effective.

Tip for bloggers

Bloggers sometimes ask me where I get my ideas for posts on this blog. Today’s post was inspired by the image that accompanies it. When the image appeared as a free download from Depositphotos, a website I use to source some of my photos, it made me think about how many people don’t like greens. My mind quickly bounced to the tasks that writers don’t like.

Images can be a great source of blog post ideas. For more ideas on how to find inspiration in images, read “Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration.”

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