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.

Long sentences can make you more concise

“You have too many short sentences. Write some long sentences.” That advice from my writing teacher stunned me. I’d been working so hard to cut flab from my writing.

However, I respected my teacher, and quickly realized that she was right. As she explained, my short sentences created a monotonous rhythm.

Long sentences may repeat fewer words

Rhythm isn’t the only reason to include an occasional long sentence. Paradoxically, as Joe Moran says in First You Write a Sentence, long sentences “can be more concise than a string of simple ones, because having a subject and main verb for each thought wastes words. And sometimes long sentences are useful for the opposite reason: not to save words, but to expand them, to stretch out a thought so the reader can keep up as you think it through.”

Moran also says:

These kinds of sentences can be made more readable by cutting deadwood words and adding words. By expanding complex ideas into long, loose sentences, you mimic the stretched-out thinking-aloudness of speech. Cutting out long, derived words, such as nominalizations, often means using more words in their place­—but it can make the writing feel less squashed. The slow train of thought needs plenty of track.

So, don’t assume that shorter is always better. I’ve also made this point in “No brevity without substance, please” and “Writing: More specific is better until it’s not.”

Put subject and main verb at the beginning

Moran offers a great tip to make your long sentences work: Put your subject and main verb at the beginning. As he says, “If the reader can’t identify the sentence’s subject and main verb—or worse, which is not uncommon, the writer can’t, it will never begin to make sense.”

Go long when it works.

 

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.

Stop submitting articles as PDFs!

Please don’t submit your unsolicited articles to editors as PDFs. In my role as the editor of a monthly magazine, I find PDFs frustrating. They tempt me to trash an article immediately. (Of course, ignore my advice if a publication asks you to submit articles as PDFs.)

Why do authors send PDFs?

None of my writer friends could understand why authors would submit articles as PDFs. I imagine that perhaps the writers want to protect their intellectual property. I think this because before sending me a Microsoft Word document, a writer has—very rarely—asked me to swear that I won’t use their article without their permission.

A PDF offers some protection because copying an article from a PDF can be challenging if the author has locked the PDF with a password. Even if there’s no password, it can be time-consuming to copy-paste from the PDF or to fix mistakes that sneak in when a PDF is converted to a Microsoft Word document.

Or, perhaps the authors want to preserve their articles’ formatting. That formatting doesn’t matter to me—at least not when I’m assessing whether an article is potentially publishable.

Why I prefer Microsoft Word

I want an article that’s easy for me to edit/rewrite, format, and rearrange. Microsoft Word is much better for all of that than Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is the Adobe program most often used by writers and editors. I’ll often move blocks of text in my quest to make an article publishable. I can’t do that in a PDF.

PDFs are useful later

However, PDFs are useful once the production staff formats articles for publication. Then, they offer the advantage of letting me see how the article will look once it’s professionally printed (or distributed as a PDF or published to a website). They also make it somewhat easier to track who suggests which changes.

I couldn’t live without PDFs when I’m reviewing the layout of the monthly magazine that I edit. But, please don’t send any editor your articles as PDFs unless the editor has asked you to do so.

 

Target a growing niche with a book as a marketing tool

Amy Buttell book

 

 

Have you ever considered writing a book? Amy Buttell, author of the forthcoming Get Your Book Done in this Lifetime: A Financial Advisor’s 5-Step Guide to Writing a Book that Boosts Your Business shares her thoughts in this guest post about how writing a book could benefit you.

 

Target a growing niche with a book as a marketing tool

By Amy Buttell

As advisors seek to solidify their value propositions with their clients, niche marketing is fast becoming a necessity rather than a luxury. The 2019 Kitces Research Study on Advisor Marketing and the 2020 Financial Planning Process Kitces Research Study revealed that top advisors with a niche possess more pricing power, serve more clients, and gross more revenue versus top advisors without a niche.[i]

In fact, these niche-focused top advisors had clients with higher net worth and an average of 25 percent more investable assets.[ii] If you are an advisor who either wants to establish or build your niche, writing a book as a marketing tool can open the door to a more lucrative and more satisfying niche-based practice.

The value of books as marketing tools

Writing a book as a marketing tool establishes you as an expert in your field. When you write a book as a marketing tool on an area of your practice that you want to grow, you change people’s perception of you and your practice. You also create a bank of content that you can draw on as you establish yourself as an expert, while shortening the trust curve with your prospects.

Like many advisors, you may be reluctant to write a book because you believe that you can’t offer any information that isn’t already available, given the tens of thousands of books already available on virtually all aspects of financial and retirement planning. However, there isn’t a book out there that captures your process and the distinctive value that you offer your clients.

Books as marketing tools don’t have to sell many copies—that isn’t the point of writing one. Instead, the point is to position you as an expert and offer valuable information to prospects aligned with your niche and your process.

When you free yourself from the perceptions of what you believe a book is supposed to accomplish, you may find yourself reevaluating whether writing a book as a marketing tool is a good way to position yourself and your practice within a growing niche.

3 reasons to write a book

Here are three statements you can review to help you decide if it’s time to write a book to help market your practice:

  1. I’m not attracting clients who are in alignment with my advisory practices and values. If you agree, writing a book as a marketing tool can help you further define what you seek in a client while at the same time creating content that will help you attract the kinds of clients that you want. This type of mismatch indicates a messaging and communication problem—either you’re afraid to turn down clients who aren’t a good fit, or you aren’t correctly communicating your value proposition, or both. Writing a book is a great way to clarify your process, your values, and the types of clients you want to attract. Even if you are attracting clients who are aligned, writing a book could still work for you if you want to build up a niche, establish yourself as a thought leader, and/or grow your practice.
  2. My business is stagnant. In today’s fast-moving advisory industry, failure to grow can create a downward cycle that pressures your business model to the breaking point. Writing a book focused on a growing niche that you have knowledge of and expertise in can help break that cycle by breathing new life and energy into your practice. Taking advantage of a slow period in your business by writing a book leverages your time productively and sets you up for a better future. If your business isn’t stagnant, but you still want to build a more robust pipeline, writing a book as a marketing tool can definitely help, especially if you have a distribution strategy in mind to leverage a book.
  3. I’m bored. Perhaps your business is successful, but you’re in need of a new challenge. Writing a book is an excellent way to challenge yourself because you’ll learn more about yourself and your business than you ever imagined, while creating a tangible product that will help grow your practice. In fact, once you write one book you might not be able to stop. As a professional writer who recently finished my own book, I can tell you that the experience is like no other. I learned more about myself and my processes than I ever would have thought. Plus, I gained confidence in myself and my business that has already resulted in a more successful business, even though my book won’t be released until Jan. 31. Even if you’re not bored, you might decide that writing a book as a marketing tool is beneficial enough to be worth the effort.

If you’re still on the fence, think about all the potential clients you can reach with a book version of yourself. I’m not just saying this so that you can think about the business building benefits—I’m saying it because there are so many people in need of good advice who aren’t getting it. Don’t let them miss out on what you have to offer just because they don’t know about you.

Amy Buttell is 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. She grows financial advisor practices through content and books. Her online home is at www.lakeeffectcreative.com. Connect with her at www.linkedin.com/en/amybuttell.

 

[i] “Kitces Research on Advantages of Niching in Time Use, Planning Approach, Pricing, and Productivity,” Kitces.com, Aug. 24, 2020, https://www.kitces.com/blog/kitces-research-financial-advisor-niche-productivity-revenue-time-use-efficiency-pricing-models/

[ii] “Kitces Research on Advantages of Niching in Time Use, Planning Approach, Pricing, and Productivity,” Kitces.com, Aug. 24, 2020, https://www.kitces.com/blog/kitces-research-financial-advisor-niche-productivity-revenue-time-use-efficiency-pricing-models/