Writing to understand

I agree with Japanese novelist Haruki Marukami who says,

I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.

Writing things down forces me to clarify what I think. It forces me to learn as I fill in the missing links between different parts of what I’m saying.

This learning process is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging. That’s especially true of longer pieces such as “6 tips to keep your compliance officers happy,” in which I’m combining insights from multiple sources.

Many investment and financial planning professionals who blog share my feelings about writing to understand. They have confirmed this in their answers to polls I’ve run. This also fits with the theme of William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, a classic book.

I’d like to thank Warren, a subscriber to my e-newsletter, who sent me the link to Dictionary.com’s “13 Quotes All Writers Will Relate To,” where I found Murakami’s quote.




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

My 2019 reading, with recommendations

Avoid embarrassment by hiring knowledgeable writers

The other day, a prospect asked me for an example of a time that my financial knowledge saved someone from making an embarrassing mistake. I couldn’t think of anything then. However, something soon happened that reminded me of the benefit of working with a writer knowledgeable about your field.

Embarrassing misunderstanding

Something didn’t seem right when I read an article draft referring to an advisor using “advanced quantitative research (AQR) funds” in client portfolios.

I’ve never seen AQR used as an acronym for a style of investment management. Also, I know there’s a firm called AQR. A Google search took me to the website of AQR Capital Management, an asset manager that pursues “systematic investing” that’s available in mutual funds, as well as in separate accounts.

I asked the writer to check whether the original reference was correct, or did the advisor use AQR Funds, meaning funds managed by AQR Capital Management, with his clients?

Sure enough, the advisor used funds managed by AQR Capital Management. Luckily, we caught the error before anyone outside (or inside) the firm spotted the error. The embarrassing mistake didn’t see the light of day.

Filling in blanks

From experience, I knew what my client meant when her draft referred to the lower interest rates of the past year. But would her clients get it?

Most non-financial folks don’t follow rates closely—unless they’re mortgage shopping or applying for some other type of loan. To save my client time, I looked up and dropped in information on the fed funds and 10-year Treasury rates.

A non-expert could have asked “What low interest rates?” A more knowledgeable writer can fill in the blanks, saving time for the client.

Avoiding compliance problems

Knowledgeable writers minimize your problems with compliance. Writers who haven’t worked in investment or wealth management are likely to run into problems. Sure, they’ll make a strong case for the benefits of your recommendation. They’re also likely to step over the lines of what compliance considers permissible.

For example, they might say, “This investment will boost your returns.” They won’t be familiar with the prohibition against guarantees or with the hedging language beloved of compliance professionals. They won’t have gone through formal compliance training. They won’t even have the informal training that I discuss in 6 tips to keep your compliance officers happy.

Other benefits of knowledgeable writers

Knowledgeable writers will:

  • Ask better questions because they understand the issues raised by your topic
  • Write in a way that’s easier for readers to grasp because the writers understand jargon and can convert it into plain English

What if your writer isn’t knowledgeable?

You can’t always find knowledgeable writers. Or, maybe you can’t afford them—they do charge more than novice writers.

Here’s how you can prevent an AQR-type mistake (or at least make it less likely):

  • Avoid jargon when presenting information to a writer. If you work mostly with individuals and families—rather than institutional investors—that’s always a good practice.
  • Read drafts carefully and critically. I believe the advisor referred to above had a chance to read the article before I saw it.
  • Get more than one person to proofread your piece. Different people catch different mistakes.

Using a less-knowledgeable writer isn’t all bad. As I said, your writer may be more affordable. And, you may benefit from using an inquisitive less-knowledgeable writer, especially if you’re writing for a less-sophisticated audience. If your writer forces you to explain things in plain English, the article that results may be easier for your readers to understand. At a minimum, a less-knowledgeable writer should deliver a grammatically sound article that reads well. However, you may need to correct mistakes or misconceptions in their drafts.

You may need to try—and see the drawbacks of—a less-knowledgeable writer before you make room in your budget for someone more experienced. Many of my clients have come to me after unhappy experiences with writers who lacked specialized knowledge.

Wireless keyboard: traveling writer’s lightweight tool

“Wow, that is so cool!”

I’m not an adopter of bleeding-edge technology, so I was startled by the reactions of other conference attendees to my smartphone accessory. The accessory wasn’t particularly high tech. It was a wireless keyboard that I use to take notes with my smartphone when I attend conferences.

If you need to take notes when you’re away from your office, you can benefit from my experience to refine your checklist for what to seek in a wireless keyboard that will improve your ability to take notes on the move.

Typed notes beat handwritten notes

I prefer taking notes electronically to writing longhand. That’s because I can read typed notes more easily. I can even copy-paste them into the drafts of articles that I write about conference sessions.

However, I don’t enjoy the bulk and size of my laptop, to say nothing of the hassle of getting it through airport security. My iPad is lighter and smaller, but it’s so old that it’s more of a paperweight than a functioning device. That’s why I leaped at my husband’s suggestion to buy a wireless keyboard for my smartphone. My phone is even lighter and smaller than a tablet, plus I already carry it with me everywhere.

I’m currently on my third wireless keyboard. I used my first exclusively with my iPad until the keyboard died, and discovered a serious drawback in my second wireless keyboard, which I used with my phone. Along the way, I developed some opinions about what I need in a wireless keyboard.

Desirable wireless keyboard characteristics

Something to hold your phone upright—I’m not an accurate touch typist, so I need to see the words appear on my phone’s screen to ensure that I’m accurate. My current keyboard’s “cradle” is an indentation that holds my phone upright. Many wireless keyboards lack this feature, which I consider essential. The cradle is much more flexible, in terms of the devices that it’ll hold in place, than the four clips on my previous keyboard that were meant to hold only tablets of a certain size.

A name-brand manufacturer (or a track record)—A bad experience with my previous keyboard convinced me to favor a name-brand manufacturer. That keyboard had excellent Amazon reviews, but it was from a no-name manufacturer. This keyboard functioned normally about 75% of the time. The rest of the time the cursor often jumped from where I was typing to another line of my document, often causing me to lose some of what I’d typed. When contacted, the vendor said something along the lines of “Yes, we know that happens. It’s OK.”

The right kind of battery—You have a choice of rechargeable or non-rechargeable batteries. With regular batteries, my current keyboard has functioned for more than six months. Of course, it doesn’t get much use when I’m not at conferences.

A case, if that’s important to you—Some wireless keyboards, like my previous one, come built into cases that will also protect your mobile device. Someone I know bought a keyboard that folds in half to protect itself and to take less space. I use my keyboard infrequently enough that I jam it in a Fedex envelope inside my tote bag to protect it.

Other wireless keyboard characteristics to consider

  • Noise—My current keyboard sounds loud to me. I always feel as if I should apologize to the people sitting around me when I type at conferences.
  • Size—The keyboard’s size makes a difference for how well it suits your hands and fits in your bag (or whatever you use to carry it).

My wireless keyboard model

If you want to copy me, I have a Logitech Bluetooth Multi-Device Keyboard K480. The first of my three wireless keyboards was also a Logitech, so I’m a Logitech fan. However, check to see if there’s a newer or better model to meet your needs.

Want more ideas for specific models? Check out “Best Bluetooth keyboards you can currently buy” and ask your friends what they’re using.

Happy keyboarding!


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 products in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.


Image courtesy of Daddazio at Wikimedia Commons


Managing magazine articles

As you may know, I edit a monthly magazine for financial advisors. I’m typically juggling tasks for several issues of the magazine at one time. In case you’re struggling with a similar project—for example, managing a multi-contributor blog—I’m sharing my checklist for each issue of the magazine.

I create a checklist that lists all of the articles in the left-hand column, and all of the steps that an article can go through across the top.

Here’s an image of the top of my checklist. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Monthly Checklist

Here’s what each column means.

  • Word count” is in the second column because length affects how many articles I can squeeze into one issue.
  • The “author” column tracks whether I’ve sent an article to the writer for clarification. You’ll notice there are two columns labeled “author.” I sometimes contact authors before sending an article to my assistant editor to review. I typically send articles to the authors after my assistant editor has reviewed them in addition to me. Unless our changes are minimal, I give authors a chance to check that our edits haven’t introduced inaccuracies into the articles.
  • The “assistant editor” column tracks if I’ve put the article in my email outbox to wait until I’ve collected enough to send them to my assistant editor for review.
  • I don’t always have time to “read aloud,” as mentioned in the sixth column, but it’s a great way to find mistakes that our eyes often gloss over. It’s a technique that I discuss in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading” (note that I now use the text-to-speech feature in Microsoft Word instead of converting to Acrobat).
  • Spell check” refers not only to the spell-checking feature of Microsoft Word, but also to the tools I mention in “My three main software tools for proofreading.”
  • The “NOTES” column I make notes for the person who oversees the magazine’s production.


I hope you find this table helpful in managing an important process in your work life.

Buckle down to writing with a virtual stranger!

It’s not easy to focus on writing when you’re a busy financial professional with many other demands on your time. That’s why I’ve suggested techniques such as finding a writing buddy, using a 15-minute timer, or following a structured writing process broken into small steps (see my financial blogging book for details) to jump-start your writing.

But what if you know you’d benefit from a buddy and you’re too embarrassed to tell a friend or colleague about your need for co-working support? Or if you have a hard time scheduling work sessions in advance? You may be a good fit for Focusmate, which I learned about in “Success under the eye of a stranger,” a Boston Globe article.

Virtual co-working

Focusmate is a form of virtual co-working—working alongside someone else via video. You decide when you want to work, book a 50-minute session, and start your session. After you introduce yourself and start your goal, there’s no more interaction. A video on the service’s home page touts that “There’s no chitchat and no collaboration.” That means there’s nothing to distract you from your work.

Writer Katie Johnson says of Focusmate in her Boston Globe article, “It’s a little bit Big Brother, a little bit Chatroulette (the website that matches up random strangers for webcam conversations that tends to attract exhibitionists). And it’s definitely a whole lot odd.”

By the way, the service is free, although Focusmate plans to introduce a premium service.

The science behind co-working

On its website, Focusmate shares some of the science behind its approach to ending procrastination.

It relies on five behavioral triggers: pre-commitment, implementation intentions, social pressure, accountability, and specificity in task definition.

Can you create your own version of Focusmate?

If the thought of video co-working with a stranger makes you uncomfortable, you could try creating something similar with people you know. Just pick a time and a goal, and update your co-working buddy.

One of my colleagues in a marketing group came up with the idea of scheduling virtual “marketing sprints” without any video, but with online check-ins. We picked an hour that was convenient to many people in the group, then started an online thread in which participants posted their intentions—for example, “I’m going to write email follow-ups to editors whom I’ve contacted during the last month.” Then, one hour later, each participant posts results. It surprised me how this virtually co-working could focus my attention.

In another variation on this, I’ve done a monthly writing challenge, in which participants set goals for the average weekly word count of their writing. Each of us posted about our progress. I found it helped me keep up on my blog. If you’d like me to run a new, public monthly writing challenge, please tell me.

Your experience?

If you’ve tried Focusmate or something similar, please report on how it has worked for you. It’s probably not for everyone. That’s why I post different solutions for folks who struggle to make time to write.

More substitutions for economical writers

You seemed to like the word substitutions I suggested in “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.” This post suggests more changes to make your writing more economical and reader-friendly.

In most cases, making your writing more concise makes it easier for readers to absorb your message.


Existing research shows → Research shows
—After all, it should be clear from the context that you’re not discussing imaginary or future research.


In large part → Largely


Are disruptive to → Disrupt


Client types → Clients


Makes you distinct from → Distinguishes you from



Are presented with → Face


Are growing their use of → Increasingly use


Be reflective of → Reflect


Be responsive to → Respond to


Have a negative impact on → Hurt


Is in a position to → Is positioned to


Make a choice → Choose



There appear to be some signs → There are signs

Must you be inspired to write?

Inspiration may make a difference in your writing. In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and The Creative Brain, Alice W. Flaherty says:

             Although most psychologists and writing teachers distrust the Romantic notion of an inspiration that is separate from skill or hard work, and doubt the claim that one can write at one’s best only when “in the mood,” so many professional writers take these notions seriously that perhaps we should too. After all, psychologists, as opposed to professional writers, are not known for writing well.

I don’t know that I’m ever truly inspired. After all, I write about mundane topics on my blog, and for my client work, it’s mainly a matter of organizing material logically. However, it’s easier for me to blog when an idea strikes. For example, the Flaherty quote that I share above made me think, “This could be a blog post!” I promptly grabbed the legal pad that’s often at my side when I read. I immediately started scribbling.

Experiences like this are why I agree with Flaherty’s advice that:

Perhaps the most practical implication is not to keep yourself from writing when not inspired, but to be ruthless about writing whenever inspiration hits. This approach requires always having paper or a palmtop computer with you, and above all to avoid answering the door or e-mail when you are in the middle of something good.

As I’ve written in “No batteries required: My favorite blogging technique,” I always have a pen and a pad of paper with me. I’m drafting this post as I work through Flaherty’s book. It’s in the magazine rack by my side, as I write on a yellow legal pad.

Poll: Do YOU Need inspiration to write?

Please vote in my poll. I’m curious to learn about YOUR experience. I’ll report on your answers in my newsletter.


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.

Professional writers vs. amateur writers

What distinguishes professional writers from amateur writers? Why should you care?

There are many characteristics that differentiate professional writers.

In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice Flaherty identifies an important one. She says that pros

…more successfully engage their audience. It is partly a question of skill, but more often a matter of goals. Amateur writers tend to write primarily for self-expression, whereas writers able to become professional can hide or transform their own agendas enough so that they are of interest to others.

That’s an interesting interpretation that makes me think of the difference between successful and unsuccessful financial bloggers. Someone who blogs solely for self-expression is unlikely to attract many followers. The same goes for someone who only blogs self-promotional content. Successful financial bloggers move beyond these approaches.

To engage readers, you must mix your own “agenda” with your target readers’ needs and interests.


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.

Change your writing for the better

“Nothing changes if nothing changes,” said my spinning instructor in a class. This spurred some thoughts that may help your writing.

In my instructor’s case, she decided to quit drinking coffee as one small step toward healthier eating. That was less intimidating than revamping all of her eating habits at once. Once she quit drinking coffee, it was easy to make a second change to juicing celery every morning. Who knows what additional changes she’ll make?

Could a similar approach help you to improve your writing?

Your first step

Pick one small thing to improve your writing. Here are some ideas for you.

  • Set a weekly writing goal. Measure your goal in terms of word count, time spent writing, or pieces produced. A daily writing goal also works, but a weekly goal may feel less daunting.
  • Create a checklist of your most common writing mistakes. The more you have to think about what to look for when checking your work, the more likely you are to forget something. Decrease the load on your brain by creating a checklist of the most important items for you to check. Not sure how to structure a checklist? There’s one in Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients that you can use as a starting point.
  • Get help from someone else. Ask a colleague or friend with a good editorial eye to mark up a sample of your work. Find a blogging buddy. Sign up for a writing class. Hire an outside proofreader, copyeditor, or writing coach. Help can come in many forms.

YOUR choice?

What’s one thing you will do to boost your writing? For my part, I read books about writing, hoping to find new techniques and inspiration.