Writers, go back to the beginning

Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to find the end. That’s my takeaway from the following quote, from David L. Carroll’s A Manual of Writer’s Tricks.

When you’re stuck for an ending, go back to your beginning. When stymied for a way to end your piece, go back to the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter, and reread it several times. Since opposites tend to meet in some mysterious way, you will often discover that the ending is somehow logically implied in the beginning and that your very first ideas somehow also contain a logical conclusion.

Use in short documents, too

While Carroll may have been offering advice for book-length manuscripts, I believe his advice applies to documents as short as a blog post, or even an email. In short, you set expectations in the opening of your document. By the end you should have satisfied that expectation.

You probably want to push your reader to think or act in a certain way. That’s often a good place to end your piece of business writing.

Endings

I’m not a big fan of endings that go under the heading of “Conclusion.” You can write a conclusion, but please don’t waste room in your article by calling it that.

At the end of a document, you may need to push your readers to take a step. That step could be something they do on their own. Or, perhaps you conclude with a call to action that has readers contact you.

At any rate, look at how you start your piece, and then look at your ending. Do the beginning and the end seem to belong to the same piece? Then, you’re on the right track.

Thank you, Andy!

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.

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Two types of prose from poet Robert Graves

In The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, English poet Robert Graves and his co-author, Alan Hodge, say:

“There should be two main objects in ordinary prose writing: to convey a message, and to include in it nothing that will distract the reader’s attention or check his habitual pace of reading—he should feel that he is seated at ease in a taxi, not riding a temperamental horse through traffic.”

Type 1: ordinary prose writing

I agree with this goal of clearly conveying a message. That’s best achieved without distractions.

Graves says, “As a rule, the best English is written by people without literary pretensions, who have responsible executive jobs in which the use of official language is not compulsory; and, as a rule, the better at the jobs they are, the better they write.”

Do you agree with Graves about the best writers being people in “responsible executive jobs”? I have seen some awful writing done by folks like that. I’ve also seen some excellent work.

I do agree with Graves’ appreciation of “ordinary prose writing.” But I’m an impatient, practical person. I’m inclined to like writing that’s easy to understand and that has a practical application.

Type 2: literary writing

However, there is a competing style that Graves and Hodge describe as having the aim to “divert leisured readers by ingenious or graceful feats with language.” This kind of writing has a place. But it’s not well-suited to most business communications.

Still, even I can sometimes enjoy an ingenious use of language.

 

Which style to use?

The bottom line? Use the type of writing that’s best suited to your goal. If you’re reading this blog, that’ll be ordinary prose most of the time.

 

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How to weight and organize evidence

In a typical financial white paper, you must organize evidence to support your argument. John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style suggests how you can do that.

Step 1. List the evidence

In Trimble’s example, a writer starts by listing all of the evidence. Next, the writer weighs the arguments. This is important because “the shotgun approach—a blast of unconnected reasons—is out of the question,” says Trimble.

Step 2. Categorize

Next, it’s time to organize the arguments by category. “This is a crucial part of the writing process, he knows, for his reader will expect the proof of this is sorted into neat, logically developing stages.” In Trimble’s example, the evidence is divided into moral, economic, political, and legal reasons.

Categorizing is a step that lends itself to mind mapping, a technique that I discuss extensively in Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. With Trimble’s example, I’d create “branches” for moral, economic, political, and legal reasons around a central circle holding the paper’s topic. That mind map would give me a bird’s eye perspective, which would help me work on Trimble’s next task.

Step 3. Put in the right order

Figuring out the sequence for presenting the arguments is an important related task. This poses questions, says Trimble:

Should the most persuasive ones all come first, or should he build his argument from least persuasive to most persuasive, or should he mix them? Or would he be wiser to eliminate most of the marginally persuasive reasons and go for quality rather than quantity?

Trimble votes for quality over quantity. I agree.

However, he also votes for an “increasingly persuasive order of arguments.” That’s often not the best approach, in my opinion, especially if the arguments are discrete, and don’t build on one another. In that case, you might lose your readers before they reach your best arguments.

My take on the right order

I’d prefer to start with the strongest argument. That helps you to capture your readers’ attention so they’ll stick with you throughout your white paper.

With the evidence in Trimble’s example, I might start with the strongest category and the strongest point within that category, and then move through the weaker points in that category. Then, I’d move on to the second-strongest category.

Of course, starting with the strongest category’s strongest point isn’t always possible. Sometimes that strongest point rests on a weaker point in that category—or in a different category. Such complex relationships are why I enjoy mind mapping to help me visualize the relationships among the points I want to make.

 

Whether or not you agree with every detail of Trimble’s approach, he’s right that you must categorize and weight the evidence to persuade your readers.

 

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The image in the upper left is courtesy of Tony Webster [CC BY-SA 3.0]

I feel bad, or do I?

Which is correct—“I feel bad” or “I feel badly”—when asked “how do you feel?”

I know “bad” is an adjective and “badly” is an adverb. However, I wasn’t sure which was correct in this case. So, I was interested in the entry for “Bad, badly” in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Would it clarify the conflict of bad vs. badly?

Bernstein’s take on bad vs. badly

Bernstein says “bad” is correct because “’Feel’ is a copulative verb, equivalent in meaning to ‘am,’ and therefore is followed by an adjectival form (bad), not an adverbial form (badly).”

Copulative verb? I don’t remember hearing that term before.

Garner’s take

I turned to Garner’s Modern American Usage for his take. Garner says, “When someone is sick or unhappy, that person feels bad—not badly. In this phrase, feel is a linking verb, which takes a predicate adjective instead of an adverb.”

Predicate adjective is another unfamiliar term. But, I’m relieved to find that Bernstein and Garner agree on “feel bad.”

Garner cites a number of cases where major newspapers incorrectly used “feel badly” instead of “feel bad.” So, if you sometimes use the wrong form, you have company. (However, if you ever read my Mistake Monday posts, you know that newspapers make plenty of mistakes.)

Garner’s “Language-Change Index” estimates that the incorrect use of “feel badly” is at Stage 2, in which “The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.” (My copy of Garners dates back to 2009. The stage may have changed since then.)

Now, how do you feel?

 

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Ideal ratio of long to short sentences?

Is there an ideal ratio of long to short sentences? A tip in John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style  made me ponder this question.

Trimble says:

As a rule of thumb, whenever you’ve written three longish sentences in a row, make your fourth a short one. And don’t fear the super-short sentence. It’s arresting. Sometimes just a single word will be plenty long.

It’s a good idea to vary your sentence length. Same-length sentences—even if they’re short, not long—grow monotonous.

A short sentence—like “it’s arresting” in Trimble’s tip—gives readers a chance to breathe. Be kind to your readers.

 

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How to achieve continuity in your writing

Continuity in your writing is important. By continuity, I mean the easily followed flow of each sentence, paragraph, and section to what follows it.

I don’t remember reading about this topic before I encountered a section on “The importance of continuity” in John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style. Here are four techniques that support continuity.

1. Clean narrative line

Part of continuity is what Trimble calls “a clean narrative line. … Each sentence, each paragraph is hinged on the one that precedes it.”

As Trimble says, “When you know precisely where your essay has to go, you can ‘tell’ your argument as simply and coherently as if it were a story, which in a sense it is.” This is why, when I teach writing to financial professionals, I stress organizing your thoughts before you write. Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients devotes an entire chapter to how to do this using mind mapping.

2. Parallel structuring

Still, there are other techniques you can use for continuity. Trimble mentions parallel structuring, which refers to

the way paragraph 2 repeats the pattern of paragraph 1; the way each of those paragraphs ends with a key sentence; the way paragraphs 3-5 all begin alike; the way the closing paragraph looks back to the opening paragraph, and so forth.

Parallel structuring is not required. In fact, sometimes it is a counterproductive when it’s forced or boring. However, it can sometimes help. Consider adding it to your writing tool kit.

3. This, that, and other words

Trimble recommends “the occasional repetition of key words” as well as “the careful use of pronouns such as this and that.” Those pronouns link to the preceding sentences.

Next, there’s the use of conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases. Some are “bookish,” while others are conversational, like “in addition” versus “also.” Trimble lists many examples of these words that help “signpost” an argument.

4. Bridge sentences

Here’s another tip from Trimble: “View each paragraph opener as a bridge sentence aimed at smoothing our way into the new paragraph.” His illustration of the technique is very similar to what I suggest in my blog post discussing first-sentence checks.

Work at continuity

Continuity may not happen naturally. Trimble’s tips provide some tools to help you create continuity where it’s lacking.

 

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The image in the upper left is by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Picture one person your work will help

Do you sometimes get stuck in the middle of writing something? Writer’s block and challenges with time When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pinkmanagement are common problems. I found a tip that may help in When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pink. The book discusses how to act at the right times, and how to overcome challenges at different points.

One person can help

One of Pink’s tips aims to help people who are stuck at a midpoint. “Picture one person who will benefit from your efforts. Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to your task,” he says.

I’ve met many advisors who struggle with completing blog posts, quarterly letters, or white papers. If you’re among them, would you feel more motivated to finish your blog post about 529 plans when you think about your meeting next week with the Millers, who want to help fund their grandchildren’s education? What if you think about a prospect with a highly concentrated stock portfolio, when you work on your white paper about diversification? Those thoughts would make a difference for me.

Added benefit for writers

Thinking of one person in your target audience is a doubly helpful tip for writers. Why? Because thinking about your reader will help you to write in a way that’s more reader-friendly than if your audience seems faceless to you. For example, you may remember that Jill Brown didn’t understand that technical term you used in explaining something to her.

More ways to overcome writer’s block

If you’re looking for more tips, here are my posts on managing writer’s block and distractions:

Your ideas?

How do you keep yourself moving when you feel stuck in a project? I’m always interested in learning from you.

 

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The image in the upper left is courtesy of Miklós Barabás [CC BY-SA 4.0]

4 tips for trimming extra words

Bryan Garner offers four tips for trimming extra words in his chapter “Waste no Words” in his HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

They include, when possible:Bryan Garner: HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

For examples of how to trim extra words, see my posts on Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers and More substitutions for economical writers

 

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The image in the upper left is courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly  [CC BY 3.0]

No brevity without substance, please

“Brevity without substance is useless.” This statement in Bryan Garner’s HBR Guide to Better Business Writing spoke to me. Bryan Garner: HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

 

If you regularly read this blog, you know I’m a big fan of writing concisely, and observing the rule of 42-14-2. However, sometimes a longer sentence is easier to understand than a shorter sentence. And, a paragraph may be easier to understand than a single sentence.

Garner sums up your goal as follows; “Provide only the information the reader needs to understand the issue—no more and no less.”

 

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.

 

The image in the upper left is courtesy of Nick Youngson  [CC BY-SA 3.0

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.