When to use numbers instead of bullets for lists

When should you use numbers instead of bullets for indented lists? I agree with Edward P. Bailey Jr., who says in The Plain English Approach to Business Writing:

I suggest numbered lists when the order of the items is especially important; otherwise use bulleted lists.

If you use numbers when the items’ order is not important, readers may mistakenly assume that the order is important.

When you write lists, don’t forget to use parallel construction. That will also help readers to understand your message.


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.

Automation to improve your writing

Automated tools can improve your financial writing.


Some of my favorite tools are Speak, PerfectIt, and Grammarly, as I’ve discussed in “My three main software tools for proofreading.” They help me with proofreading. I’ve gone into more detail on one of these tools in “How I use Grammarly to improve my writing.”

If your organization uses Associated Press style, you may like AP StyleGuard, which I discuss in “AP StyleGuard: the answer to your proofreading prayers?” However, having a basic proficiency in AP style, and feeling annoyed by StyleGuard recommendations that didn’t suit my needs, I’ve switched to an online subscription to the AP Stylebook, which offers the ability to add entries customized to your needs, integrated with a subscription to Webster’s New World Dictionary.

If you follow The Chicago Manual of Style, there’s an online version of that. PerfectIt offers integration with that style guide if you subscribe to both services.

Writing more concisely

If you’re looking to write more precisely, check out the Hemingway app and website, which I discuss in “Free help for wordy writers!” Some readers have told me that the simple act of running their writing through Hemingway has significantly improved their writing.

The Writer’s Diet is another tool that tackles similar issues, as I discuss in “Editing tool: the Writer’s Diet.”

Keep it short with the Fog Index!” includes links to tools that can calculate the Fog Index—a measure of wordiness—of your writing. Alternatively, you can run the readability statistics calculations in Microsoft Word.

None of these tools will make changes for you, but they’ll help you by letting you know that a problem exists.

Using AI to draft articles

ChatGPT, an AI writing tool, seemed to burst on the scene late in 2022. It may turn out to be a useful tool. Before experimenting with it, make sure you understand its limitations, some of which are explained in Brian X Chen’s “How to Use ChatGPT and Still Be a Good Person.”

Integrate automated tools into your writing process

Of course, you’ll enjoy a more productive automated proofreading and editing process if you include your tools as part of a well-developed writing process.

I walk you through every stage of the writing process in my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. Although the book focuses on blogging, its process applies to almost any kind of writing.

For a quick overview of how to integrate automated tools into rewriting, read my “12 steps to rewrite long articles.”



Note: I made a small change to this article on Sept. 30, 2022, and January 20,2023

Why I love Speak for proofreading

If you’ve ever tried to proofread the gazillionth draft of an article, you know it’s painful to reread a familiar piece. Plus, you naturally fill in missing words and correct other mistakes in your mind, not on the page. The Speak feature in Microsoft Word is helping me overcome this challenge. (Note: I initially used—and blogged about using—Adobe Acrobat for this purpose.)

Speak’s key feature is its ability to read documents out loud in a deadpan voice that makes mistakes and weak writing glaringly obvious, at least to me.

How to use Speak

For ease of use, add the Speak feature to your Quick Access Toolbar in Microsoft Word. The Speak icon is the white word bubble with the right-pointing green bubble in the image below.

Next, highlight the test that you’d like read aloud and then click on the Speak icon. Follow the text with your eyes as Speak plods through it. You may be surprised at what you discover.

I typically highlight one paragraph at a time, unless I’m confident that the piece is in excellent shape. If I make a lot of changes to a piece, I may review one sentence at a time.

Speak is particularly useful when I make heavy edits to client-written pieces because I might not realize that a change I made in one spot will require a corresponding change in another spot. I also find ways to streamline the writing.

How to use Read Out Loud in Adobe Acrobat

Before I upgraded to a version of Word with Speak, I relied on the Read Out Loud feature of Adobe Acrobat. Back then, I used it after converting Word documents to PDF documents. Today I use it when proofreading PDFs.

After opening my newly created PDF document, I follow these steps:

  1. Click on the Read Out Loud from the View Tab and choose Activate Read Out Loud. NOTE: The steps may vary if you have a different version of the software.
  2. Click on the text I’d like the software to read out loud. Usually I highlight one paragraph at a time for reading out loud as I follow along on a printed page. I am ready to click Shift + Control + C to pause the reading so I can type a correction or scribble an improvement on my hard copy.
  3. Input edits into the document.
  4. Repeat the Read out Loud process if I’ve made many edits.

I know I could read the document out loud myself. However, I’m impatient, so I usually give up after a few sentences.

Integrate text-to-speech into your process

I describe how I integrate Speak into my process in “12 steps to rewrite long articles.” Give it a try! If you need to develop more of a process for your writing—from brainstorming through distribution, check out my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.


Note: I updated this article on Jan. 18, 2015; August 8, 2022; and Dec. 18, 2022.

My 2022 reading

Here are some of the books that I enjoyed reading during 2022.


Actually, the Comma Goes Here by Lucy Cripps.

The Plain English Approach to Business Writing by Edward P. Bailey—This book offers sound suggestions for good writing.

By the way, if you want to improve your financial writing, check out my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. Although it focuses on blogging, it teaches you a process you can apply to any type of writing.



Breaking the Age Code

Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live by Becca Levy—I discuss this and two other books in this section in my November “From the Editor” column in the NAPFA Advisor.

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson

Never Pay the First Bill: And Other Ways to Fight the Health Care System and Win by Marshall Allen—This book offers lots of suggestions for containing health care costs. For a taste of his advice, check out “When My Teenage Son Went to the Emergency Room He Put a Limit on What He Agreed to Pay.”

Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old by Steven Petrow

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges—I was interested to read how there’s usually an extended period of transition.

What color is your parachute? for retirement: planning a prosperous, healthy, and happy future by John E. Nelson and Richard N. Bolles


Bittman Bread

Bittman Bread: No-Knead Whole Grain Baking for Every Day by Mark Bittman and Kerri Conan—Since reading this book, my sourdough baking has switched to mostly using whole wheat flour. I love the scallion pancake recipe in this book, which I often make with chives from my garden. I also make Kerri’s sandwich loaf and whole wheat focaccia.

Flour: A Baker’s Collection of Spectacular Recipes by Joanne Chang and Christie Matheson

How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman

King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains by King Arthur Flour


I received four of these books through The Wall Street Journal’s free book program, which I wrote about in my September 2022 e-newsletter.

Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora, edited by Bryant Terry

Dorothy Dandridge by Donald Bogle

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers—This is fiction, but it says a lot about race.

The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Sidney Poitier—It was interesting to read this around the same time as Harry Belafonte’s memoir and the Dorothy Dandridge biography because they all knew and worked with one another.

My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte and Michael Shnayerson

Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth About Where I Belong by Georgina Lawton

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry


Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You by Jessica Cassity—This isn’t a book you’d sit down to read straight through. But it might be useful if you’re looking for a few small tweaks to make in your life.

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World by Eve Rodsky

Getting to Yes with YourselfGetting to Yes with Yourself by William Ury—This is a very sensible book by a renowned negotiator.

Making Space, Clutter Free by Tracy McCubbin

The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again by Catherine Price

The Power of Voice by Denise Woods


These are several of the fiction books that I enjoyed this year.

Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings—This is the first of the Detective Murdoch mysteries that form the basis of the Canadian TV series. I find it relaxing to read well-crafted mysteries like this.

The FlatshareThe Flatshare by Beth O’Leary—This was very entertaining.

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid—I also read Malibu Rising by the same author. I enjoyed both books, so I’ll probably read more by this author.


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.

4-step process to define your audience

Do you take the time to define the audience for whom you’re writing? Writers who don’t do this before writing may produce content that doesn’t hit the mark. On this blog, and in my financial blogging book, I suggest how to narrow down your audience. However, I’m always looking for new approaches. That’s why I was intrigued by the chapter on “How to Define Your Audience” in How to Write and Present Technical Information by Charles H. Sides.

Here’s how Sides approaches this challenge:

My systematic method for audience definition is divided into four processes: (1) defining who the readers are; (2) defining what the readers know; (3) defining what the readers need to know; (4) defining what the readers will do with the information.

Sides talks about his processes in the context of the technology industry where, as he says, “Because of the daily technological advances in high-tech industries, you are often writing in a vacuum without specific knowledge about your intended readers.” That challenge isn’t unique to technology. Financial writers often lack contact with their targets, a challenge I address in “How to capture investment client questions when you lack access?

Let’s look at the Sides method in the context of financial services.

1. Define who your readers are

For example, are your readers potential clients? If so, are they individuals or institutions?  Or, are you targeting the press, social media influencers, referral sources, students, professors, or members of your own organization? Are your readers members of one narrowly defined group, or are you targeting a mix of groups?

As Sides says, “Readers come to a document with different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge about the subject, and different needs for the information that is provided.” He suggests that, among other things, you look at the professional and educational backgrounds of your readers. For example, a recent college graduate who majored in finance will respond differently from a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in Japanese history who will respond differently from a Japanese history Ph.D. who has also earned the CFA credential and worked for an investment management firm (like me).

2. Define what your audience knows about your topic

Your readers’ educational and professional backgrounds will give you a general idea of what they know about your topic. However, they may not know many specifics about the narrow topic that you’re writing about.

In the tech context, Sides says, “they may know a good deal about game-design architecture, but would need to be led clearly through a report about a new kind of virtual reality (VR) headset that your firm has developed.” In an investment context, an international stock analyst is knowledgeable about non-U.S. stocks in general, but may not know about the frontier market where your firm is pioneering investments.

Sides suggests that you ask yourself how much background is necessary to introduce your topic. On the one hand, you don’t want to bore or insult your readers with overly basic information. On the other hand, you may lose many readers if you don’t provide some basic information. I’ve written about how to manage this challenge in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication.”

3. Define what your audience needs to know

Sides suggests two useful questions for this step:

  • What information does your audience need from your report or paper to do their jobs better?
  • Will the information that’s included need a technical slant or a managerial slant, a marketing or public relations slant?

Your answers to the first question will help you to delete unnecessary information. Your answers to the second question will help you focus your writing.

4.  Define what your audience will do with your information

For example, will your readers use the information to perform professional tasks, such as picking specific investments? Or, are they simply using your information to increase their knowledge of the field?

Summing up

Sides concludes that “We might not always tell readers what they want to hear, but we should always give them what they need—and should want—to know.” To achieve that, it helps to define your audience.

I like his philosophy.


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.

Don’t be a monologophobe!

“A monologophobe…is a writer who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word more than once in three lines,” wrote Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage.

Bernstein admitted that “…avoidance of monotony caused by jarring repetition of a conspicuous word or phrase is desirable.” But, he said, “…mechanical substitution of synonyms may make a bad situation worse.”

Don’t overuse alternatives to “said”

I see this mechanical substitution most often when writers struggle to avoid using the word “said.” Bernstein illustrates this with a list of substitutes including “averred, asseverated, smiled, chuckled, grinned (plainly or mischievously), groaned, expostulated, ejaculated, declared, or asserted.”

But “said” is simple word that holds up well to repetition. Bernstein praised American writer Ernest Hemingway on this count. “If Hemingway did nothing else for American literature, he reestablished the virtue and dignity of say and exposed the folly of synonymomaniacs,” he said.

The investment world’s equivalent

In the investment world, the word “returned” is also subject to embellishment, as I discussed in “How to discuss index and portfolio returns: My case against synonyms for ‘return.’”


Don’t go overboard in introducing variety into your writing!





Brainstorm ideas for your publications

Have you ever struggled to generate topics for your blog posts, white papers, and other publications? You are not alone. I have some solutions to help you brainstorm.

1. Write about your clients’ mistakes and problems

The most powerful brainstorming advice I can give you is to start “Blogging the mistakes your clients make.” My post on this topic gives you a template for writing this kind of blog post.

2. Blog the questions your clients ask you

This approach relates to my first suggestion because your clients’ questions often relate to their mistakes and problems. Moreover, if one client asks you a question, there are probably many more with the same question.

A bonus of answering questions is that it can improve your online search rankings. After all, many prospects do online searches to find answers to their most pressing questions. Moreover, your helpful, narrowly targeted answer can convince a prospect that you’d be a great advisor for them.

If the answer to a client question isn’t right for a blog post, consider adding it to a “frequently asked questions” section on your blog, as I discuss in “Turn questions into blog posts.”

3. Draw a mind map about your clients

As I describe in the first chapter of my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, you can generate many blog post topics by creating a mind map centered on your target readers. Create branches that lead to each of your readers’ main areas of concern. Then draw sub-branches to narrower topic areas. Again, as I suggest above, focus on your readers’ mistakes and problems.

For an “outside the box” approach to using mind maps to generate topics, read “Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration,” in which a Barbie doll plays a central role.

4. Use one of 20 topics I suggest

Jump start your list with my “20 topics for your financial blog.”

5. Draw inspiration from your reading

You can write blog posts spurred by insights you find in books or articles. You can also argue with points made in those books or articles.

Learn more about how to do this in “4 tips for turning books into blog posts.”

6. Clone your successful blog posts

Revisit approaches that have worked before to generate new topics, as I discuss in “Clone your blog posts.”

7. Save your trash

Save your trash to feed your blog,” as I’ve said on my blog.

Have you ever gone off on a tangent in a white paper or blog post, only to realize that you need to cut that idea to keep your publication focused?

Don’t leave that idea in the trash. Instead, make it the focus of its own blog post. Your initial enthusiasm about the topic suggests that you can generate reader interest in it if you make it the focus of a piece. Just make sure that your new piece includes the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) for your reader, as I discuss in “Focus on WIIFM, not the article.”

8. Look at the world around you

Things that you see in the world around you can inspire blog post ideas.

I’ve gotten quite a few ideas from museum visits, as I’ve discussed in “Museums can inspire your blog posts.” I think this works because art often provides analogies for problems that readers face.

I discuss a similar idea in “Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration,” mentioned above.

What do sidebar and ESG have in common?

Do you know the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog post? Both “sidebar” and “ESG” are words that people in some fields immediately understand, but they perplex many other people. “Sidebar” refers to area of text, often placed in a box, to the side of an article. “ESG” is short for “environmental, social, and corporate governance.” Being aware of people’s limited comprehension should influence how you write.

My research on technical terms

When I ask people if they know the meaning of “sidebar” and “ESG,” the results are mixed.

My writer friends mostly understand “sidebar,” and my financial colleagues mostly understand “ESG.” But I’m not convinced that those two populations overlap a lot. At least not outside of financial writers, writers who believe in socially responsible investing, and financial folks who work closely with editors as they write for publication. I imagine that far fewer members of the general public understand both words.

What’s a writer to do?

I’m a big believer in briefly defining technical terms, as I’ve discussed in “Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical.” Thus, I write “environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG)” when using the term with any audience that may not be familiar with the term. Sure, many audience members may understand the abbreviation, but my short definition won’t hurt their reading experience. They’re probably used to glossing over the spelled-out version of ESG.

I could explain “sidebar,” but I’ve found a solution I like better. Instead, I now use a handy workaround. I replace “see sidebar” with “see ‘TITLE OF SIDEBAR ARTICLE’ below.” It’s easy for the reader to scan for the title, without wondering, “What the heck is a sidebar?”

Down with meaningless claims!

Business BlatherThis blog post was inspired by a section in Business Blather: Stop Using Words That Sound Good but Say Nothing! by Jerry McTigue. As you know, I agree with the mission of this book.

Delete meaningless claims

In a section called “Enough with the platitudes already,” McTigue criticizes the “litanies of clichés and banalities writers believe exude a corporate luster simply because virtually every corporation proclaims them.” He adds, “Unverified off-the-shelf pronouncements are innumerable—as many bloated corporate documents attest to.”

In the world of financial advice, this means statements such as “We provide superior customer service.”

Turn meaningless claims into meaningful claims

What’s the solution for this kind of writing? McTigue says, “Prove it. Illustrate it. Support it.”

In the area of customer service, do you have a case study documenting how your firm’s service truly goes beyond the ordinary? That’s a good place to start.

As McTigue says, “Replace those threadbare boasts with real substance, solid evidence, credible endorsements.”

You may enjoy this book

Overall, McTigue’s book is an entertaining, easy-to-read book. It has many powerful before-and-after examples of bad writing transformed into effective writing.


Note: I received a free review copy of this book.


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.


When to send an article to the expert, not an editor

If you work in a marketing or editorial group, the pieces that you work on may get comments from many different people. Sometimes your next step should be to send the piece to an editor to clean up or proofread the writing. Other times, you need to send the piece back to the subject-matter expert—often called a SME in the marketing world.

When to send to the expert

Send the piece to the expert when reviewers raise questions that can only be answered by an expert. For example, “Which S&P 500 sectors does this technique apply to?” That’s not a question to which an editor is likely to know the answer.

The answer is less clear when one of the reviewers has written, “Please rewrite more simply.” Then it’s a judgment call whether expert knowledge is required to implement the reviewer’s request. If you’ve worked a long time at your company, you may know enough to make that call.

When to send to the editor

If reviewers have mainly made line edits to an article, you can send the piece to your editor. Cleaning up the grammar or word usage is unlikely to require a subject-matter expert.

When you’re not sure

When you’re not sure about the best next step, I suggest you ask your editor for advice. An editor to whom you’re important as an internal or external client is likely to respond more quickly than a subject-matter expert who views your work as tangential to their role. Also, smart editors will tell you when they lack the expertise to resolve an issue.

YOUR tips?

Do you have tips on how to handle this issue? Please share them.