How to edit articles about Black people

Most investment writers rarely discuss race. However, I have the privilege of editing articles related to race—and advocating for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion—in my role as editor of the monthly magazine of an association of financial advisors. This has raised issues for me as an editor when reviewing articles mentioning Black people. At the most mundane level, these are small issues of capitalization and word choice. However, they feed into larger issues of how Black people are treated and perceived. The right choices are “a simple and long-overdue signal of respect for the shared identity, history, and experiences of people who identify as Black,” as discussed in “Recognizing that words have the power to harm, we commit to using more just language to describe places” on the Brookings Institution’s website.

Capitalizing Black

For years, I didn’t capitalize black when referring to race. However, last year I noticed more and more publications using an initial capital in this situation. Even AP style agreed with this change, writing:

AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person. AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses.

This raised a more sensitive question about whether to capitalize White in the racial sense. The magazine decided to adopt initial capitals for White, for reasons I explained in “Words matter, especially for diversity.”

Black or African American?

When the term African American appeared in an article, I did a bit of research because I’ve heard that not all Black Americans embrace that term. The National Association of Black Journalists’ style guide entry for “African American” says:

Not all Black people are African Americans (if they were born outside of the United States). Let a subject’s preference determine which term to use. In a story in which race is relevant and there is no stated preference for an individual or individuals, use black because it is an accurate description of race. Be as specific as possible in honoring preferences, as in Haitian American, Jamaican American or (for a non-U.S. citizen living in the United States) Jamaican living in America.

AP style agrees:

African American is also acceptable for those in the U.S. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow an individual’s preference if known, and be specific when possible and relevant. Minneapolis has a large Somali American population because of refugee resettlement. The author is Senegalese American.

Accordingly, I’m asking my authors who identify someone as African American to confirm that’s how the individual prefers to be identified.

More vocabulary choices

Slaves or enslaved people?

Should you refer to slaves or enslaved people? I wasn’t even aware of this issue until my assistant editor mentioned it.

AP style allows for either term, saying:

The term slaves denotes an inherent identity of a person or people treated as chattel or property. The term enslaved people underlines that the slave status has been imposed on individuals. Many prefer the term enslaved person/people to separate people’s identity from their circumstances. Others prefer the term slave as a way to make a point of the circumstances. Either term is acceptable. Try to determine an individual’s preference.

One lesson that sticks with me from diversity training years ago is that people with disabilities are more than their disabilities. The trainers told me that I should refer to “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” (However, some individuals with disabilities disagree, as discussed in “It’s Perfectly OK To Call A Disabled Person ‘Disabled,’ And Here’s Why” and “Disabled vs disability. Which is right?

Avoid Black as a standalone

A similar line of reasoning suggests avoiding referring to Black as a standalone term, but instead using Black as an adjective. For example, the UofSC Aiken’s “Inclusive Language Guide” (PDF), suggests “Refer to groups as black students, black faculty members, etc., not blacks.”

Try a sensitivity reader?

Writing inclusively and sensitively isn’t just a matter of individual word choices. That’s why some authors—especially book authors—have chosen to hire editors who are called “sensitivity readers.” One sensitivity reader sees her job as “first and foremost to improve the literary quality of a book by steering the author away from one-dimensional portraits and clichés,” as described in “What the Job of a Sensitivity Reader Is Really Like,” a Vulture article. The sensitivity reader said, “Most people are shocked by the blind spots they discover.”

For a journalist’s perspective, read “Gut Check: Working with a Sensitivity Reader” by Jane Hu, which suggests to me that sensitivity readers aren’t just for book-length manuscripts. You may be able to hire someone to work on short pieces of writing. Even getting one article reviewed could open your eyes to issues to look for across all of your communications. Hu’s article also suggests how you can find a sensitivity reader.

The Progressive Style Guide advises,

Avoid vocabulary that extends negative racial, ethnic, or cultural connotations and avoid usage that carries hierarchical valuation or portrays groups of people as inferior, bad, criminal, or less valued than others. At times, such language may be difficult to perceive from the point of view of an oppressor group. Don’t assume you know all the ways that a phrasing may land; take the time to check it out with others.

A sensitivity reader may be more than you can manage for your firm’s newsletter or a blog post. However, it’s always a good idea to get a second set of eyes on your writing, as I’ve often suggested on my blog. When it comes to questions of race, it’s especially helpful to have a reader of the race you’re discussing. However, be wary of overburdening that individual with solving your problems.

Here’s my blog post about working with a sensitivity reader.

Resources to help you edit writing about Black people

My go-to resources

Online tools

  • is an online tool with the goal of helping you “catch insensitive, inconsiderate writing,” which I learned about in NAPFA’s Diversity + Inclusion Toolkit. Supposedly you can install it in a browser like Google Chrome, but I found it easier to scroll down to the “Demo” section, copy-paste my text into the black box, and then look to see which words Alex highlighted and why. In some cases, Alex suggests replacement vocabulary, such as primary/replica for the computer term master/slave. In other cases, Alex simply alerts you that your word or phrase may be insensitive or “profane.” At this point, Alex doesn’t understand the context of your writing well enough to be decisive in its judgment.
  • PerfectIt proofreading software, which I use to check for errors of consistency and grammar in my writing, has a feature that lets you flag words as sensitive and suggest replacements. The company explains its approach in “The Efficient Editor: How to Write and Edit With Sensitivity.”
  • Microsoft Word apparently is addressing inclusive language, including racial bias, in its version available to Microsoft 365 subscribers, according to How-To Geek‘s “How to Check for Inclusive Language in Microsoft Word.” Thank you, Sonya Dreizler, for alerting me to this!

More resources

Let’s use the right words!

Let’s use words that show respect for Black people. As writers and editors, this is one small way that we can contribute to racial equity.

Of course, even picking the right words doesn’t guarantee that an article will be accurate or appropriate. There might be bigger issues with how the writer approaches the topic. There is a lot more to think about. However, this article is my attempt to share some practical tips from my experience.


NOTE: I updated this post on March 23, 2021, to add a new resource.

Reply effectively to Microsoft Word comments

Want to ensure that you and your editor agree on the changes to your document? One part of communicating effectively with your editor involves using the “comments” feature in Microsoft Word. Bad usage can lead to bad mistakes. Or, it can require otherwise unnecessary back and forth with your editor. In my experience, problems typically arise with how authors reply to my comments.

3 highlights for Microsoft Word comments

How to reply to your editor’s Microsoft Word comments

When you respond to your editor’s comments, use the reply option that’s offered in the comment. See the word “Reply” in the lower right corner of the image below? Hover your cursor over it to make it turn gray. Then click on it to type your reply.

use the reply option

Your reply will be threaded below the original comment, as in the example below. This makes it easy for both parties to connect a reply with the original comment.

reply on comment

What NOT to do with Microsoft Word comments

Many financial professionals aren’t heavy users of Microsoft Word, and they may never have used its editing features. As a result, they don’t know how to create threaded replies to comments. They create a new comment, as in the example below, instead of replying to the original comment.

wrong way to reply

When a document has multiple comments, this makes it hard for your editor to see which comment your reply concerns.

When there are too many rounds of comments

Of course, even with threaded comments, an article or white paper that goes through multiple rounds of revisions can become cluttered with comments. When there are too many comments to fit in the right margin, Word forces you to click on some of the comments to expand them. That makes it harder to scan all of the comments.

To reduce comment clutter, I typically delete comments after my client and I have addressed them. When working with a client who likes to track their comments, I click “Resolve” to gray out that comment. That signals to both of us that we can skip over that comment, unless there’s an issue.

reply resolve





Don’t panic if you hit “Resolve” by mistake. Just hit “Reopen.”

Why your editor uses Word’s comments feature

The beauty of Word’s comments feature is that it lets you highlight the text to which your comment refers. And, it does this while keeping your comment off to the right-hand margin of the document. This allows for an uncluttered view of the original and your comments. A writer friend says she likes using comments because it’s less intimidating to the person whose text is marked up.

I’m only aware of three alternatives to delivering written comments.

  1. Typing your comment in the body of the text, immediately before or after the relevant text—This makes it hard for the reader to review the original text without your comment. Plus, you need to describe in words which part of the text your comments apply to.
  2. Typing your comments in a separate document, as I’ve had to do when suggesting edits to a screenshot my client sent me. This often involves a lot of extra typing. For example, I might have to indicate the page, paragraph, and line numbers of the text I’m discussing, in addition to making my suggestion.
  3. Making the changes yourself, which is only practical if you know what they should be. Even then, I sometimes add comments to explain why I made changes. That’s an important part of creating satisfied clients. Comments also educate them so they write better on their own.

However, when my comments ask clients to make changes, I like it when they make changes to the text themselves. After all, they’re the experts on their topic.

Questions about Microsoft Word?

Have questions about the mechanics of comments, replies, and the like in Word? Google is usually helpful. I also like to check the Microsoft Word support website. I’ve found solutions for some hard-to-crack problems by posting in the Microsoft Community.

Curious about how the author approval process should work?

That’s a bigger issue than managing comments. I tackle it in “Tips for managing author approvals.”


Cutting words is writing

If you’re like me, your first drafts aren’t perfect. As part of your editing, you may need to cut words.

I like what Joe Moran says about cutting words in First You Write a Sentence:

…cutting words is also writing. We make meaning not just by adding words but by taking them away.

Moreover, he says:

Michelangelo said that David was hidden in that rough block of marble all along. The art of it was freeing the body from within by removing the superfluous stone. All that sculptures flawless detail—the tensed neck, the bulging veins on the hands, the twist of the torso and the curve of the hips so frugally conveying that a moment of repose is about to turn into action—was made only by gouging out, flaking off and chipping away. Cutting words has this same creative quality. It seems to liberate a meaning that the writer was not aware of but was waiting there to be found. Distilling prose, like boiling down a sauce, releases its real flavor and its true essence.


Think of Moran’s words—and Michelangelo’s art—the next time you hesitate to cut words. They should make your task easier.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

8 ways to cut word count and boost your impact!

Sometimes you need to cut word count (or character count). Maybe you’re answering an asset management RFP or filling a website template that limits your space. Or maybe you realize the document you’re editing is simply too long.

I have eight tips for how you can cut word count. These tips also help if you’re trying to cut your character count.

1. Cut paragraphs and sentences

You’ll lose the biggest number of words at once when you cut entire paragraphs and sentences. Read your document carefully to identify unnecessary blocks of words.

Although you can cut word count most dramatically by using this technique, I sometimes try it only after I’ve made one round of line-by-line edits. Why? Because sometimes I can’t identify superfluous content before closely reading the document.

2. Use Hemingway App

Try the Hemingway App if you don’t know where to start to cut word count. It automatically flags sentences that it considers too long. It also highlights some other potential problems that I discuss below.

I use Hemingway App last because I’m confident about where to start. However, when I’m less confident that I’ll catch all problems, Hemingway App has my back.

3. Cut adverbs and adjectives

Many adverbs and adjectives aren’t necessary. That’s especially true when you use strong verbs and nouns to carry your message.

I agree with Mark Twain. He said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Also, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

When you use fewer adverbs and adjectives, you intensify the power of those you do use.

Hemingway App (see tip #2) identifies adverbs for you.

4. Substitute simple words for phrases

For example, “building my knowledge” becomes “learning.” “In advance of” becomes “before.”

A corollary of this tip is “Replace jargon.” However, sometimes removing jargon will boost your word count. That’s OK by me if it makes your document more readable—and you can remain within your word count limits.

You’ll find more examples in my post on “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

5. Replace passive verbs with active ones

For example, “Bond prices were depressed by the Fed’s actions” becomes “The Fed’s actions depressed bond prices.” The “after” version also makes the relationship between cause and effect easier to understand. That’s a double win!

6. Use pronouns

For example, write “it” instead of “investment philosophy,” if you refer to investment philosophy repeatedly and the meaning of “it” is clear from the context.

7. Rethink the content

Think about whether there’s a way to get to your point faster. This can help you implement my first tip. As I said in my first tip, I often leave this strategy until after a round of line edits has made me more familiar with the content and its flow.

8. Read the content out loud

When you listen to content, you can hear problems that are hard to see when you read only with your eyes.

Recent versions of Microsoft Word have a text-to-speech function called Speak. If you’re working with software that lacks this function, use the workaround I discussed in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.”

Bonus tip: Calculate your word count

If you’re aiming for a specific word count, make sure you know how to turn on the word count feature in Microsoft Word or whatever software you’re using. This feature also shows character count—with and without spaces. Those spaces can make a difference.

If you’re not working in a program with a word count feature, you can visit a website like



Note: I edited this on Sept. 30, 2022.

The Cloze test for readability

Too much financial content is hard to understand. It uses technical vocabulary. It’s too wordy. It’s poorly organized. But sometimes it’s hard for authors to tell when content doesn’t work. What can they do?

I learned about the Cloze test from reading “Tips and Tools for Consumer Friendly Disclosure” by University of Georgia’s Professor Brenda J. Cude, a National Association of Insurance Commissioners consumer representative. It works as explained in her slide below:

Cloze Test instructions

Let’s experiment to see if the test works.

Cloze test experiment

Here’s a financial disclosure with words blanked out as required by the test. Try to fill them in.

ETFs are subject to ____ fluctuation and the risks ____ their underlying investments. Unlike ____ funds, ETF shares are ____ and sold at market____, which may be higher ____ lower than their NAV, ____ are not individually redeemed ____ the fund.

Options trading entails significant ____ and is not appropriate ____ all investors. Certain complex ____ strategies carry additional risk. ____ trading options, please read ____ and Risks of Standardized____. Supporting documentation for any____, if applicable, will be ____ upon request.

There were 16 blanks in the sample. If you guess 60% (10 words) or more correctly, then the text is considered well-written, according to Cude. Text for which readers score 49% (8 words) or lower needs to be edited, especially if the score is 39% (6 words) or lower, says Cude.

Here is the text of the original disclosure:

ETFs are subject to market fluctuation and the risks of their underlying investments. Unlike mutual funds, ETF shares are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than their NAV, and are not individually redeemed from the fund.

Options trading entails significant risk and is not appropriate for all investors. Certain complex options strategies carry additional risk. Before trading options, please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options. Supporting documentation for any claims, if applicable, will be furnished upon request.

How did you do on this test? I suspect that many of you have read enough financial disclosures that this text tested well.

My doubts

I wonder how good a test this. I figure that a highly redundant text would score well because there are so many clues to the missing words. However, I wouldn’t enjoy reading such text.

I looked around to see how others view the Cloze test. In “Cloze Test for Reading Comprehension,” the Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group speaks well of the test as a way to measure comprehension. “Cloze Tests provide empirical evidence of how easy a text is to read and understand for a specified target audience. They thus measure reading comprehension, and not just a readability score.”

Nielsen makes the interesting point that comprehension is different than readability. (I’ve discussed readability in posts like “7 factors that affect reading ease.”) After all, making a sentence short doesn’t guarantee that the reader will understand it.

As a result, I conclude that the Cloze test can be a useful tool to use along with others that I discuss on this blog and in my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

Thanks, Linda Leitz!

I thank Linda Leitz for drawing my attention to Cude’s work in Leitz’s “Tell it to me like I’m an eighth grader” in the NAPFA Advisor.