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.

Pick your corner as a writer!

William Zinsser, a revered writing expert, said the following in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction:

Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

This advice is especially important if you’re writing something short, such as a blog post.

However, this advice also applies to longer projects, such as white papers. Picking a corner will help you focus on a narrower set of readers. The more specific and focused you are on solving the problems of your target readers, the better those readers will react. That’s because they’ll feel that you understand their problems and you’re helping them. That’s powerful.

By the way, I’d like to thank Andy, one of my newsletter subscribers, who forwarded to me this issue of Mark Frauenfelder’s Book Freak newsletter with this quote.

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.

The image in the upper left is courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tips for writing book reviews

I often edit book reviews for the monthly magazine I edit for an audience of financial advisors. As a result, I’ve been thinking about what separates the best book reviews from the serviceable book reviews.

1. Don’t forget the essentials

Your readers will seek a brief overview of the book. You don’t need to regurgitate the table of contents. In many cases, a line or two will suffice.

Also, give the names of the author(s), the book, and the publisher. That’s all information your readers will need if they want to buy the book. Your readers may also appreciate the book’s list price so they know if it’s in their budgets, and a link for buying it.

When I send my contributors a template for their reviews, it includes a fill-in-the-blanks sentence with the information I want. I italicize [Book Title] because that’s the magazine’s style for book titles.

[Book Title] is published by [publisher] at a list price of $___. It is also available as an e-book.

 

2. Why is this book worth reading—or not?

Sometimes a book is worth considering because of reasons like the following:

  • The author is a respected expert or has a strong background in the topic
  • The book covers a hot topic
  • The book promises a solution to a pressing problem
  • Other people have said great things about the book

 

While the factors above make it worthwhile for someone to read and evaluate, the actual book may not live up to its promise. For me as a reader, the value of a nonfiction book depends on:

  • Does it solve a problem for me?
  • Does the book deliver what it promised?
  • Is it written well enough that it’s not painful to read?

Your approach to your review may vary according to your background and the audience for your review.

For example, if you’re a financial advisor reviewing a book for a magazine aimed at financial advisors, then look at the book through the eyes of a financial advisor. This means that a book that’s great at educating individual investors on using educational savings accounts may not teach advisors anything new. On the other hand, advisors may benefit from recommending the book to their clients.

Similarly, a technical book on trusts or taxes might bore individuals, but become an invaluable reference for advisors. One of the valuable things you can do as a reviewer is to identify the audience for which a book is best suited.

Provide specific examples of what makes the book worthwhile. This means that you don’t simply say, “This book provides great ideas for turning spendthrifts into savers,” although that’s a great start. Give an example of a specific idea, and why or how it works.

Other potential topics could include the following, some of which I drew from “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Review” from Lesley Ann McDaniel’s blog and “Book Reviews” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

  • What did you like most (or least) about this book?
  • What would you have done differently in tackling the topic?
  • Are there other books that cover this topic better?
  • Did the author’s argument persuade you?

 

3. Use quotations, if appropriate

Sometimes a good quotation from a book can drive home the point you want to make. But choose carefully. Rather than quote a clunky sentence, consider paraphrasing.

4. Bring in personal experience

If you’re a financial advisor writing for an audience of financial advisors, readers will be interested to learn your personal perspective. For example, you might say something like “the next time I face this [specific problem], I’m going to experiment with author’s suggestion to …”

On a similar note, you could say something like, “As a financial advisor, I wish the author had said more about …, but clearly that’s out of his scope as a writer for a general audience.” Or, “I’ve tried the technique the authors suggest, but until I read their book, I didn’t realize what I was doing wrong.” That bit of vulnerability lends authenticity to your review.

Of course, make it clear whether you recommend the book to your readers.

5. Be critical, but not unkind

Of course, sometimes a book doesn’t live up to its promise. You don’t have to praise a book that doesn’t deserve it.

On the other hand, don’t be mean. When I was learning how to critique my writing students’ work, I was told to “criticize the writing, not the person.” That’s great advice in any setting.

Another resource

I like the suggestions in “How to Write a Compelling Book Review” on the Oxford University Press’ blog. One of the tips that stood out for me was “Summary, however it is handled, should be combined with your evaluation of the book.” You’re writing a book review, not the kind of unopinionated book report that I had to write back in middle school.

 

The image in the upper left corner has this attribution: Review by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 ImageCreator

Write better sentences with Joe Moran

Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence. suggests an exercise to help you learn to write better sentences.

Try this exercise

Learn from the artistry of others when you try this exercise described by Moran.

Find a sentence you like and look at it for a distressingly long time, until you start to see past its sense into its shape. As with a painting, the trick is not to exhume some buried symbolism or esoteric meaning, but only to make time to look. Take the sentence apart and reverse-engineer it, the way computer programmers do when they dismantle software to see if they can copy it without infringing the rights. Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences. Learn to love the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.

My analysis

I’m not a good literary analyst. I often felt like the “weak link” in the writers group that helped me give birth to Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. However, I’ll share my analysis to keep you from feeling intimidated by the exercise.

Moran’s paragraph is striking for its use of metaphors. I especially like “Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences.” That’s a nice short sentence—and I love short sentences.

However, my love of short sentences suggests that perhaps I should look at Moran’s work for how to use long sentences gracefully. The last sentence of his paragraph has 24 words, yet it flows easily. That may be partly because the sentence is not a mishmash of dependent clauses. I can read about each of the loves—”the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop”—without worrying about which other part of the sentence they relate to. It also uses some unusual word combinations. How often have you thought about the “feel” of a sentence? “The wholesome little snap of the full stop” made me smile.

Try it, you may like it

The next time you see a sentence that you like, pause. Copy it for later analysis, or, if you have the time, analyze it on the spot.

If you learn something from this exercise, I’d love to hear about it.

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.

Moot or not?

For years, I assumed that if something was “moot,” it didn’t matter, or wasn’t worth arguing about. Was I ever wrong!

However, it turns out that I have company in misunderstanding this word.

Here’s what I discovered thumbing through Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage.

Moot means arguable or subject to discussion, but the misusers think it means hypothetical, superfluous, or academic.

It’s a good thing I’ve never used the word “moot” in my written—and probably not in speech, either. That’s no moot point!

 

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.

Top posts from 2020’s second quarter

Check out my top posts from the second quarter!

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

  1. Ready-to-use content for financial advisors—Everyone wishes for marketing shortcuts. If you don’t have time to write your own content, you may consider using content written by others. It’s not ideal. But it’s better than nothing, especially if you can tailor the content to your clients and your firm.
  2. What “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” taught me about writing—This is a guest post by writer Anne Brennan.
  3. Stilettos in the gym—Believe it or not, this is a writing tip inspired by what I saw at my gym. As you might guess, I wrote this piece before the pandemic. I haven’t been to the gym in months.
  4. Mistake Monday for April 27: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?—You can test your proofreading skills on the last Monday of every month.
  5. Read critically or write badly

 

4 great tips for writing sentences

Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence has some great sentences about sentences.

Here’s a sampling of them, sorted by the lesson they suggest.

4 tips for writing good sentences

1. Slow down

Moran writes:

Most of us, when we write, march too quickly on to the next sentence. To write intelligibly is hard enough, so be sure you have done that first. Fix your sights on making one sane, sound, serviceable sentence. As a farmer must do, hold your nerve and resist the impulse to put your energies into cash crops with quick returns. Have the confidence to leave fields fallow, to wait patiently for the grain to grow and to bear with the dry seasons.

What a great analogy with farming!

I don’t recommend pausing after every sentence. After all, too many people struggle to complete a first draft. But, at some point, you should pause to review what you have written. Don’t hesitate to throw it out and start over if it doesn’t work. Your second draft is bound to benefit from the ideas “marinating” in your head.

2. Don’t tax your reader’s memory

“A sentence must stick in the mind. It has to be literally memorable, never so intricate that it cannot be absorbed all at once,” says Moran.

He also says:

The limit of a spoken sentence is the breath capacity of our lungs. The limit of a written one is the memory capacity of our brains. The full stop at the end of a sentence sets the limit. By the time it arrives, you must still be able to recall the sentence’s beginning. If you can’t keep it all in your head, then maybe those words weren’t meant to be together.

“Maybe those words weren’t meant to be together” agrees with my assessment of many complex, long sentences that I read in the fields of investment and wealth management.

I like using the idea of “memory capacity” to explain why many long sentences don’t work. I think that some of my clients might understand that better than my babbling about “too many dependent clauses.”

Complex sentences and paragraphs are also a problem when key information is unintentionally omitted. As Moran says, “A readers should not be asked to do the equivalent of lining up all the screws and dowels and puzzling over the instructions, only to find that the Allen key is missing.” Ooh, there’s another analogy that makes me smile.

3. Give gifts

Moran says that writing should be “an act of generosity, a gift from writer to reader.” So, follow the rules of good gift giving. For starters, “the gift should never feel like more trouble than it is worth.” Moreover, “the gift of knowledge that a sentence brings should never have to be bought, as it often is, with the reader’s boredom or confusion.”

Despite Moran’s suggestions, confusion abounds in many examples of financial writing. That’s no gift.

4. Move up and down the ladder

Moran uses S.I. Hayakawa’s idea of a ladder of abstraction. Concrete nouns like “chair” and “wall” are on the lowest rung. Abstract nouns—nouns like “truth” or “knowledge”—are on the top rung.

Moran says:

Writing stuck on one rung of the ladder of abstraction is too monotone. Arguments that use only abstract nouns, like truth and power and knowledge, are hard to care about because writing that sidesteps the senses is dull. Sentimental or pious writing also leans on abstractions, replacing difficult feelings with consoling simplifications. When words are too general, they paint inadequate pictures. But writing that describes only the feelable things in front of our faces is also dull, because it does not say why those things should matter to someone else. Writing stuck on the ladder’s middle rungs is worst of all, because here sit words with an illusory concreteness. Keep shinning up and down the ladder, though, and the reader gets the gist in different ways. She grasps big ideas through concrete things, and concrete things through big ideas. The tangible ignites the elusive and both of them shine brighter.

Moran himself seems to have a flair for “shinning up and down the ladder.”

 

I had to return this book to the library before finishing it. I’m definitely re-reserving it. It’s worth reading all the way through.

 

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.

Solve the right problem

“A great solution to the wrong problem will always fail,” says Nielsen Norman Group’s Sarah Gibbons in her three-minute video on “User Need Statements in Design Thinking.” Nielsen Norman Group consults on website usability. However, much of what Gibbons discusses applies to other written materials, too.

User need statement

Gibbons defines a user need statement as “An actionable problem statement used to summarize who a particular user is, the user’s need, and why the need is important to that user.” Understanding this information will help you write better communications of all kinds. That includes blog posts, articles, white papers, and even emails.

It interested me that she spoke about the need to empathize with the user.

More resources

If you prefer to learn from written materials instead of video, check out Gibbons’ article on “User Need Statements: The ‘Define’ Stage in Design Thinking.”

To learn about my approach to understanding your audience, read my blog post on identifying “What problem does this blog post solve for them?” and my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

 

The image in the upper left is courtesy of Free photobank torange.biz [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Describing an interview-based assignment to writers

Recently a company contacted me to write an interview-based post for its blog. I’ve often done this for blog posts that show off the expertise of the company’s staff. However, what was unusual about this request was that I’d need to interview experts outside the company for the post. The need to find external experts makes an interview-based assignment more time-consuming and less attractive to writers. It’s more like writing a magazine article than a typical content marketing piece.

I learned later that the company’s marketing director had omitted an important piece of information when it described its interview-based assignment. It could have reduced my qualms about accepting an assignment requiring interviews of external experts. I describe it below.

The challenges of using external experts

Using external experts is challenging for two reasons.

First, it takes time to find and schedule them. If the writer doesn’t know relevant experts, a good deal of networking may be required to find them. That’s especially true if there’s no trade association or other group where such experts gather.

Scheduling can be more challenging than when working with a company’s internal experts. Internal experts are motivated to participate for the good of their employer (though they still can be challenging to schedule, but that’s another story). External experts don’t feel a pressing need for your company to succeed at its marketing.

Second, the experts may not wish to use their expertise on behalf of the company that’s your client. It’s generally less prestigious to appear on a corporate blog or in a corporate magazine than in a publication that’s perceived as independent. Also, the expert may worry about appearing to endorse the products or services offered by your client. On the other hand, some corporate publications don’t quote experts by name. That’s even worse because the expert gets no visibility in exchange for sharing insights.

The missing information

After I turned down the interview-based assignment, I learned that the marketing director had unwittingly withheld a piece of information that would have made it more attractive. He told me that he planned to find experts for the writer. That was potentially a big timesaver for the writer.

Of course, just naming experts isn’t enough. For the reasons mentioned above, experts may not want to help a corporate publication. However, if you’re a marketer assigning articles, and you can promise cooperative sources to your outside writers, that’s a big plus. Don’t hide that; feature it!

Of course, there’s other information that writers will seek, including:

  • Your topic, defined as specifically as possible
  • Pay
  • Word count
  • Place of publication
  • Target audience and why they’ll care about your topic
  • Your timeline and editing process

When you provide complete information up front, you’ll get a more realistic price from your writer. Also, the entire writing and editing process will go more smoothly.

One idea to a sentence

“One idea to a sentence” is the title of a section in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. It’s also a darned good idea for financial writers.

Bernstein advises this approach for “those kinds of writing in which instant clarity and swift reading, which are other ways of saying quick comprehension, are dominant desiderata.”

Research favors shorter average sentence length

Bernstein cites research showing that articles with a shorter average sentence length are more easily understood.

He explains:

…in other words, a few sentences of three or four words offset some rather long sentences and pulled the average down. Still, although there were some rather long sentences, there were no complicated ones.

This analysis led to the one-idea-per-sentence approach. That’s partly because “Confining a sentence to a single thought will usually reduce the number of words.”

If the folks whose work I edit took this approach, I would spend less time breaking long sentences into two or even three sentences. This kind of editing is an easy way to boost readers’ comprehension.

No splinters, please

Of course, I must be careful not to create what Bernstein calls a “splinter.” Sometimes, as Bernstein says, “a writer or an editor ineptly splits a long sentence, then finds himself holding a meaningless splinter like this: ‘The charge came after an assertion by District Attorney Hogan.’ “ This is part of what writing guru Bryan Garner means when he calls for “no brevity without substance.” I think he and Bernstein have similar philosophies about the characteristics of good sentences.

I also tend to favor one idea per blog post. But that’s a topic for another day.

 

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.

The photo in the upper left has is courtesy of Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha [CC BY-SA]