When do you need to cite sources?

You don’t always need to say where you obtained the information you use in your writing. But sometimes it’s necessary for your credibility or to keep your firm’s compliance professionals happy. So, when do you need to cite sources in your blog, white paper, or other publication?

 

When do you need to cite sources infographic

Common knowledge doesn’t require citing sources

If you’re citing a commonly known fact, you don’t need to know the source. For example, no one will ask you to document how you know that the U.S. has 50 states—not 49 or 51.

The same goes for somewhat more specialized, yet broadly known statistics, such as “The estimated population of the U.S. is more than 330 million.” Still, if I were using that 330 million statistic, I’d probably do a Google search just to make sure the population hasn’t sneaked up to 340 million since I originally fixed that number in my mind.

Here’s a good discussion of “common knowledge” from Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

Graphs and other depictions of numbers

It’s a good idea to provide sources for graphs and other exhibits derived from numbers. This information bolsters the credibility of your exhibits. It also satisfies your firm’s compliance professionals.

Sources usually go below the exhibit. For example, “Source: Bloomberg.” That’s a bare minimum citation. You may need to add more information about the source and the date of the data. Giving the date can be especially important when discussing economic or market data because the situation may have changed since the most recent published data.

The Chicago Manual of Style is a good source for how to treat that information. Don’t have a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style? Look at the guidelines for the CFA Institute’s Financial Analysts Journal or the Financial Planning Association’s Journal of Financial Planning.

Does your exhibit rely on data generated by your company? Document that, too, using “Source: YOUR COMPANY NAME.”

Quotes

Be careful to use accurate quotes. That’s especially true if you quote someone, but you’re relying on someone else’s repeating that quote from another source. That secondary source might have made a mistake. (I discovered this the hard way with my blog post quoting Woody Allen on the topic of success.)

Check that quote in the original source, if possible. Or, make it clear that you’re quoting someone else quoting that person. For example, “…as Warren Buffett said, according to L.J. Rittenhouse’s Buffett’s Bites: The Essential Guide to Warren Buffett’s Shareholder Letters.” If you use a famous quote, check its origins on the Quote Investigator website. You may be surprised by what you learn.

When you quote someone, give the person’s name and the source where you found the quotation. The detail that you provide will depend on the formality of where you’re publishing. An academic journal article requires a full footnote that may follow The Chicago Manual of Style. In a blog post, the person’s name and article title with a hyperlink to the article that you’re quoting may be enough.

If you wonder how much of a person’s writing you can quote, check out my post about fair use, which contains links to some great resources. Also, check to ensure that you’re not using proprietary data that you must license to use. I discussed one example of this in “Are you crediting your OECD data properly?”

Ideas

When you take ideas from other sources, even if you don’t quote them, you should name those sources. How much of an idea do you have to take before you need to attribute your idea to a source? The more distinctive the idea, and the more you take, the more likely that you should credit the source.

Again, check out my post about fair use for more on this topic.

Know your firm’s standards

Your firm’s compliance professionals may be able to share sourcing standards specific to your firm or their interpretation of the relevant SEC and other regulations.

You can save time on your interactions with compliance if you always source your key statistics and other information from outside sources. When I draft commentary for my clients, I usually footnote the sources of any statistics or interesting facts that I dig up, even in those footnotes aren’t necessary in the final, published product. This makes it easy for my clients to respond to sourcing-related challenges from compliance.

Compliance isn’t the only company function that may have opinions on your sourcing. Your marketing or editorial professionals may have a style guide or other standards that apply to your sourcing.

 

Disclosure: If you click on the 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.

 

Improve your financial writing with these rules

Sometimes I find inspiration for my writing in unusual places. Most recently, it appeared in a newsletter from a professional organizer. Lorena Prime’s “7 Golden Rules of Organizing” made me think about how you can improve your financial writing skills.

rules from a professional organizer infographic

Rule 1. Be open to change

It’s not easy to change your financial writing style after putting your words together in the same way for many years.

However, the rules that you learned in school may no longer apply. For example, I learned in typing class to put two spaces after every period. Today, one space is the standard practice, as explained in Farhad Manjoo’s “Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.” Similarly, today a much more personal, casual style of writing prevails than when I entered the business world. For example, when I rewrote my website in 2015, I changed my biography from using “Susan Weiner” to “I.”

Also, there are always new areas where you can learn things. I try to take at least one writing-related class every year. I also read extensively and ask questions of the experts around me.

You’re a smart person who can learn. Take advantage of your curiosity and intelligence to try new approaches to your financial writing.

Rule 2. Purge

One of the biggest curses of financial writing is wordiness. Purge those excess words from your writing.

While you’re at it, replace multisyllabic jargon with simpler words that count as plain English. I mentioned one tool for identifying text that needs purging in my post on “Donald Trump, grade level, and your financial writing.”

Rule 3. Put like things together

Keep like with like, as I keep my sweaters together in one drawer

Keep like with like, as I keep my sweaters together in one drawer

Financial writing that’s well organized is easier to read than writing that hops from one topic to another and then goes back and forth again.

Divide whatever you write—especially longer pieces, such as white papers or quarterly letters—into distinct sections that each discuss one topic.

I describe an example of how to do this in “Key lesson for investment commentary writers from my professional organizer.”

Not sure if you’ve succeeded in putting like things together? You can outline or diagram the topics covered in each paragraph to check. The color coding used in Roy Peter Clark’s margin analysis technique may help.

Rule 4. Create homes

Your ideas for articles, blog posts, and longer pieces deserve homes. Creating a place where you store your ideas (and the data to support them) will help you to find them when you need them. There’s nothing worse than sitting down at your keyboard with no idea of what you want to write about.

You can house your ideas in a way that suits your style. Some people write notes by hand and cram paper copies of relevant articles into manila folders. Others have embraced virtual repositories, such as word-processing documents, Evernote folders, or online mind maps. I store my blog post ideas as Microsoft Outlook tasks.

Rule 5. Do it if it takes 2 or 3 minutes

I’m stretching to apply this rule to your financial writing. However, I’d like you take advantage of even small time slots to work on your writing.

For example, if you’re struggling to write a blog post, commit to spending 15 minutes on it. What you write doesn’t have to be great. It’ll get your mind thinking. You may develop momentum and keep going after your 15 minutes end. Even if you stop after 15 minutes, the ideas will continue marinating in your head.

Only have two or three minutes? Brainstorm ideas for future topics. Try my Barbie-inspired technique if you’re out of ideas.

Rule 6. Maintain it

You must write to improve your financial writing skills. Write regularly—daily, if possible.

Rule 7. Work with someone

I’m a big believer in classes—and getting feedback from others—as a way to improve one’s writer. Even non-financial writing classes can make you more aware of your writing’s strengths and areas where you need to improve. I took many writing classes through adult education programs while I was learning to write better. None of the classes had anything to do with investments or other financial topics.

If you’d like to focus on financial writing, I offer coaching and my financial blogging class, “How to Write Blog Posts People Will Read: A 5-Week Writing Class for Financial Advisors.” I also lead writing workshops on email and investment commentary for professional societies and corporate clients.

 

How are YOU working to improve your financial writing?

I’m always interested in learning from you. Tell me how you’re improving your financial writing.

By the way, if you need a professional organizer to help you get your office in shape, I recommend Lorena Prime, whose article sparked this post. She is a woman of many talents. She has also acted as facilitator for my annual investment commentary webinar.

Paper image courtesy of adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing tip: Why are you telling me this?

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask this again and again as I read articles written by nonprofessional writers. Their articles don’t capture my attention because they don’t give me a reason to care about their topic.

Why nonprofessionals fall short

Nonprofessional writers display admirable enthusiasm for their topics, but they often have a hard time putting themselves in the “shoes” of their readers.

Nonprofessional writers often fail to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). Readers look for the WIIFM when they decide whether to read your article. If they’re reading online, they’re often looking for a solution to a specific problem they face. They’re not going to read your article just because you publish it on your blog or in your newsletter.

If people start reading your article because they have a relationship with you, they still want to learn the WIIFM, even if the answer is only “You’ll learn an interesting idea that you can share with your colleagues or on social media.”

Nonprofessional writers often suffer from the “curse of knowledge.” As I discussed in “Why hire a writer? Three powerful reasons,” it’s hard for them to explain things to outsiders because they know too much. They may use words that are too technical or they get bogged down in details. They can also forget to say why their topic is important because its importance is so clear to them.

Questions to help you

Here are two questions that can help you figure out why you are writing an article.

  1. How do you want this article to help you or your organization?

For example, are you writing an article to gain new newsletter subscribers or to interest readers in a specific product or services offered by your company? Do you want to correct a misconception about your company being too conservative (or too aggressive), or not up on the latest investments, or not well-run?

You may not explicitly mention this goal in your article. However, understanding this goal will help to shape your article. And, your article may benefit from an explicit call to action, such as “For more tips, subscribe to our newsletter!” or “Schedule a call to learn about our XYZ service!”

  1. What’s the WIIFM for your readers?

What is a problem that your readers face that your article can solve? It could be something specific to your firm, such as how to explain to their bosses why they’re sticking with your firm instead of switching to a firm with a better-known name. Or maybe it’s solving a challenge with their organization’s budgeting, or the need to have something interesting to discuss at their next social event.

I explain a way to identify your reader’s WIIFM in “Identifying ‘WHAT PROBLEM does this blog post solve for them?’

Tell readers why you’re telling them

Once you’ve figured out your reader’s WIIFM, don’t forget to incorporate it into your article. Don’t phrase it as “I’m telling you this because.” Instead, identify the reader’s pain point, and say how your article addresses it.

I share one way to do this in “Make your writing easier with my fill-in-the-blanks approach for structuring articles.”

Keep it short with the Fog Index!

Warren Miller, CPA, CFA, one of my longtime newsletter readers, urged me to remind you to write more concisely. As Warren wrote, “most of us overeducated people write sentences that have too many words, too many of which have too many syllables.” I admit that I’m sometimes guilty of this. And, I see lots of verbose financial writing.

Warren likes the Fog Index—also known as the Gunning Fox Index—to help you catch wordy writing. It measures how hard your text is to read, in terms of the number of words per sentence, and the use of longer words. Here’s an image of the index formula that Warren sent me:

keep it short

Easy ways to calculate the Fog Index

Don’t feel like calculating the Fog Index yourself? These websites will calculate the Fog Index for you. For example:

  • Gunning Fog Index—I like that this website highlights words of three or more syllables. That helps you identify words to simplify. However, the website’s syllable detector makes mistakes. For example, it identified “weighs” as a word of three or more syllables. You and I know there’s only one syllable in “weighs.”
  • Readability Formulas has a page dedicated to the index. It also offers an array of other readability calculators.

The two websites’ calculations must differ because the Gunning Fog Index page yielded a score of 8.855, while Readability Formulas rated my sample as 9.3 and “fairly easy to read.”

Fog Index infographic

How to lower your score

Readability Formulas says that a Fog score of 7 or 8 is “ideal,” and “Anything above 12 is too hard for most people to read.” So, what can you do if your score is too high?

Start by shortening long sentences. Sometimes you can cut a long sentence into two or even three pieces. Other times, you’ll need to rethink your approach to long sentences. Perhaps you can delete unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. Another option is to insert a short sentence to break up the flow of long sentences.

Then, look for words that are unnecessarily long or technical. Perhaps you used the word “rodomontade” or “fanfaronade.” Substitute “boasting,” and you’ll dramatically increase reader comprehension, in addition to cutting word length.

Another way to lower your score is to use the tool that I discuss in “Free help for wordy writers!

However, please remember that shorter doesn’t always mean better. Emphasize reader-friendliness over shortness.

Use movement and description in your writing: A tip from Francis Flaherty

Good nonfiction needs both movement and description, says Francis Flaherty, author of The Elements of Story.

One technique he suggests for incorporating both is writing what he calls “right-branching sentences.” These are sentences that, as he writes, “offer up a big dose of action in the beginning so that the writer can branch out into static descriptions in the later, righthand clauses.”

Here’s his example of a right-branching sentence.

The boat smashed into the pier, both because San Francisco’s famous fog blinded the captain, and because the two night watchmen had decided to warm up with some rum below decks.

Let’s test Flaherty’s hypothesis by rearranging his sample sentence to put the static descriptions first. How easy is the following sentence to understand?

San Francisco’s famous fog blinded the captain and the two night watchmen had decided to warm up with some rum below decks, so, as a result, the boat smashed into the pier.

I find Flaherty’s example much easier to understand. Because it quickly tells me that the sentence is about a crash, I interpret the fog and the rum-drinking watchmen in light of that result. In the second example, I don’t know where the sentence is heading. I don’t know why the writer is telling me about those things until the very end of the sentence. At that point, I might have to re-read the sentence to figure out how the whole sentence hangs together.

 

NOTE: This article was originally published in February 2010. I’ve expanded and republished it because it’s still relevant.

Top posts from 2021’s first quarter

Check out my top posts from the first quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on communication (#1, #4), writing (#2), proofreading (#3), and marketing (#5)

My posts that attracted the most views during 2021’s first quarter:

  1. Discuss your mistakes like Warren Buffett
  2. 12 steps to rewrite long articles–This is a practical, step-by-step guide to rewriting long articles. I follow this process myself when fixing articles that clients send to me.
  3. MISTAKE MONDAY for January 25: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?
  4. How to influence, not argue, with people –This is a timely topic when opinions are so divided.
  5. Target a growing niche with a book as a marketing tool –This is a guest post by Amy Buttell, the author of Get Your Book Done in this Lifetime: A Financial Advisor’s 5-Step Guide to Writing a Book that Boosts Your Business.

Lousy headline, provocative first sentence

I nearly didn’t read an interesting article about stocks in The New York Times.

Why?

The problem of a lousy headline

I nearly skipped the article because of the bland headline: “An Ear to the Ground on Stocks.” The article could have been about anything. Perhaps college students who pick stocks for a class. An investment club. A well-known equity portfolio manager. But the real topic was more intriguing. What a shame that the lousy headline prevented some readers from discovering it!

The first sentence of this article by Mark Hulbert grabbed my attention. It said, “Investor sentiment suggests that the bulk of the stock market’s decline is now behind us.” Now that’s provocative. The author takes issue with what most people think. That should have been communicated in the article’s headline. What if the title had read, “Data suggest the worst of the stock market decline is over”?

I also like how Hulbert summarized his argument–and set up the structure for the rest of his article–in his next paragraph:

This conclusion is based on an analysis of two very different groups. The first is investment newsletter editors, who, on average, are usually wrong about the market’s direction; they are currently bearish. The second is corporate insiders, who usually get it right, and they are mostly bullish

From there, Hulbert discussed the behavior of newsletter editors, and then of corporate insiders. He spent four paragraphs on editors and five on insiders. The equal weighting between the two topics reflected his good organization. If he’d had six paragraphs on editors vs. one on insiders, he probably should have emphasized the editors more in his summary.

Writing lessons from this article

Lessons for writers:

  • It isn’t enough for your headline to be accurate, it has to attract attention. In the Hulbert example, the headline would have benefited from a rewrite.
  • State your main idea—and your main supporting points—clearly at the beginning of your article. If possible, say something provocative.
  • The body of your article should follow the organization that you set up in your introduction.
  • Compare the number of paragraphs you allocate to each main point from your introduction. If they’re roughly the same, then your introduction probably gives the right weight to each point. If not, you may need to tweak your introduction or the body of your article.

For example of a provocative headline, visit this post about Treasuries on my blog.

NOTE: This blog post was originally published in 2008 on one of my earlier blogs. But it’s still relevant today, so I’m republishing it.

“Better writing without parentheses” by Harriett Magee

Parentheses are overused in financial writing. Here’s a guest article about them by Harriett Magee, a writer-editor who specialized in alternative investments. Her article originally appeared on Jan. 27, 2008, on one of my earlier blogs. It’s still relevant, so I’m sharing it here.

Better writing without parentheses

By Harriett Magee

Parentheses (like all punctuation) can hurt (and help) most writers (maybe even all) in getting their point across to readers.

Readers may find such marks annoying, like in the previous sentence, because they interrupt the flow and weaken the message with irrelevancies. And while most readers don’t count words in sentences, parentheses often result in long sentences, which tire and confuse readers. (The ideal sentence length is 15–20 words.) To get your message across, use parentheses sparingly.

For writers, parentheses can seem like a lifesaver because they offer a home to data and show you’ve done your homework. They’re ubiquitous in research reports. Writers may also use them as a way to repeat information to drive the point home. For example, “The $750 million Big Ideas Venture Fund II was allocated roughly half to early- and to late-stage life science investments (49% and 51%, respectively). Fund III, however, had only about a tenth of capital ($75 million) invested in one early-stage investment.” But readers will get the point faster if you leave out numbers.

When writing about investments, often the urge to insert alternative metrics can be satisfied by putting the data in a graph. For example, give the prospective investors in the $2 billion Big Ideas Fund IV a bar graph showing the shift in allocations to young vs. more-established companies. A bar graph would accomplish two things: provide variety by breaking up the text with a picture, resulting in more white space to give the eyes a rest, and provide alternative metrics for people, especially those who want more detail.

I love Harriett’s idea of moving the parenthetical information to a graph. It’s a great way to boost the visual appeal of your writing. At the same time, it makes the text easier to read.

By the way, using parentheses isn’t the same as making parenthetical references. Parenthetical references can make your writing more reader-friendly. I explain that in “Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical.”

Working with a sensitivity reader

Have you ever considered working with a sensitivity reader on your writing for your business? Do you even know what a sensitivity reader is?

In my article on “How to edit articles about Black people,” I mentioned that writers who are concerned about diversity and inclusion can hire a reader with specialized skills or background to give feedback on how they might improve their writing in that respect. The readers may be members of the groups the writers are discussing or targeting. This kind of sensitivity seems as if it could help advisors who are trying to appeal to diverse prospects, clients, employees, and others.

To learn more about how using a sensitivity reader works, I hired one to review “How to edit articles about Black people.” This is my report on my experience.

The bottom line: Working with a sensitivity reader can be useful, especially if you don’t work with a community of people who can give you targeted feedback.

Hiring a sensitivity reader

I learned about sensitivity readers in “How to Use a Sensitivity Reader,” an article by writer Judi Ketteler in the Freelance Success newsletter (accessible only to paid subscribers). Luckily for me, Ketteler included contact information for two sources of sensitivity readers. First, I tried the sensitivity reader whom Ketteler used. After that reader didn’t reply to my inquiry entered through her website’s contact form (she responded later, apologizing for being busy), I moved along to the sensitivity readers available through Salt & Sage Books, the other source mentioned by Ketteler.

Salt & Sage Books offers the services of readers from diverse backgrounds.

For example, below are the characteristics of three readers highlighted by Salt & Sage when I was researching this blog post. More detailed profiles are available when you click on the individual profiles.

Reader 1

  • Chinese-American culture
  • “Hapa” or half-Asian culture
  • Tiger parents
  • Complex family relationships
  • Interracial romance
  • Gamer culture
  • San Francisco Bay area
  • Ancient Chinese magic systems

Reader 2

  • Muslim
  • Arab
  • Egyptian
  • Arab Diaspora
  • Post-Colonial People/Themes

Reader 3

  • Regional/cultural expertise growing up in the South (specifically TN)
  • Being in a minority religion (LDS) in the Bible belt
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Music/piano/band, teaching piano
  • Infertility, IVF, adoption
  • Divorce, single parenthood, remarriage, step-parenting, co-parenting

I’m sharing these three lists partly so you can see that a sensitivity reader isn’t just for issues of race.

However, in my case, I needed a reader who was sensitive to the issues of Black people. I mentioned that to Erin Olds, my Salt & Sage contact person, along with the fact that ideally I’d like to work with someone who has experience working with corporate clients, in case I’d have an opportunity to make a referral someday.

Erin gave me two lists of names with links to their profiles: a list of people who would be available to start work almost immediately and a list of people for whom I’d have to wait longer, if their profiles appealed to me more. She also highlighted names of readers experienced working with corporate clients. Only one of those three readers, Mya, was available right away, so I chose to work with them (Note: Mya is non-binary, so I’m using gender-neutral pronouns like “they.”)

Process, timing, and fees

From my initial inquiry to receiving my document with comments took a little over three weeks. The website states that “All edits will take a minimum of 3 weeks.”

First, I had to send a 50% down-payment and sign a surprisingly long legal agreement using DocuSign. Salt & Sage charged a minimum of $65 for sensitivity reading when I sent in my manuscript, but its prices page now shows the minimum as $140, with rates starting at $140 for 10,000 words.

When I checked with Erin about fees in March, she told me:

For sensitivity reading of longer manuscripts, we charge per word. We are actually in the process of increasing our prices, so according to those new prices, we charge .009c/word for a sensitivity read. We have very flexible payment plans, and for clients who have a smaller budget or want to do more up-front work, we are working on expanding our Incomplete Guides series, which give an overview of several identities. (Next two books in the queue: Writing Queer Characters, and Writing Nonbinary Characters.)

If you decide to use Salt & Sage, you can get a 10% discount by using my name.

Then, I sent my document to Erin. All communications go through Salt & Sage staff. You won’t have direct contact with your sensitivity reader.

Sensitivity reading results

I received two documents from Salt & Sage after the sensitivity reading: a marked-up copy of my blog post and a separate letter.

I was relieved to find only two comments on the marked-up version of my blog post. The first suggested elaborating on why word choice is important, and suggested a link to a Brookings Institution article. The second suggested that saying “people with a disability” isn’t always preferred to saying “the disabled,” and it suggested two links. I ended up incorporating all of the links.

The letter that accompanied the marked-up blog post also suggested linking to articles that explain why some people do not capitalize “white.” I didn’t incorporate that information, mainly because I included those links in my NAPFA Advisor column that I linked to in my blog post.

In their letter, Mya said about their perspective that “I am only one person with the perspective of one person. I am not a gatekeeper, nor do I have final say over what you include in your manuscript. My goal is to shine a light on areas that might be improved and give you further resources.” I appreciated that attitude.

I was also grateful for the comment that “I really enjoyed how you both brought your own perspective and referred to the authority of others when it came to this piece. For example, you don’t just tell your audience what to do on the basis of your own authority but defer to organizations and other resources to back up what you’re saying.”

“It takes a village”

It’s corny to say “It takes a village,” but my original blog post only came off as well as it did because it shared what I’ve learned through working with others.

I’d like to highlight several parts of my “village”:

  • The Freelance Success writers community (for subscribers only) was a big help when I was trying to figure out whether to capitalize Black, especially because I grappled with this before Associated Press style started capitalizing the term. Members directed me to some resources I would have taken longer to find on my own.
  • Kevin Adler, the assistant editor whom I work with at the NAPFA Advisor, is much more attuned to racial issues than I am, so I’ve benefited from his guidance.
  • The NAPFA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Initiative, which is raising relevant issues.
  • Understanding Our Differences, a local program that offered the training that introduced me to the idea that the words I use to refer to people make a difference.

Think about trying to develop your own “village.” Consider a sensitivity reader as a way to expand your perspective!

 

 

 

Writing tip: Kill the ST words!

Looking for an easy tweak to simplify your firm’s writing? If your audience is American, stop using three prepositions: “amidst,” “amongst,” and “whilst.” Substitute “amid,” “among,” and while.”

Why bother making such a small change?

It will speed your reader’s progress through your writing. These words ending in -st are viewed as archaic in American English, says Bryan Garner in Garner’s American English. Amongst, for example, “is pretentious at best,” writes Garner.

Don’t distract your readers with archaic or pretentious words. However, if you’re writing for a British audience, consult a British style guide (you can find some listed in “7 British English Writing Resources.” Don’t push American style on your British readers, unless that style is part of your appeal.

NOTE: This post was originally published in November 2015. It has been updated and republished because it’s still relevant.