7 factors that affect reading ease

On this blog—and in my writing workshops—I’ve written about things that affect reading ease. I’ve focused on the average number of syllables per word, words per sentence, and sentences per paragraph. However, Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, introduced me to a seven-factor list from Robert Gunning, creator of the fog index.

Factors that affect reading ease

Some of the seven factors relate to length. They’re similar to the syllable, sentence, and paragraph measures. They also feed into the fog index. Evans describes the fog index as follows:

If you want to be clear, count the average number of words in your sentences, count the number of words of three syllables (the percentage of hard words), total the two, and multiply by 0.4. The lower ranking on the fog index, the easier the reading…

The seven factors include:

  1. Average sentence length in words
  2. Percentage of simple sentences
  3. Percentage of strong verb forms
  4. Proportion of familiar words
  5. Proportion of abstract words
  6. Percentage of personal references
  7. Percentage of long words

Why do the other factors matter? I like #3, the percentage of strong verbs, and #4, the proportion of familiar words, because they typically make the writer’s intent easier to grasp.

I’m puzzled by #6, percentage of personal references.

As I see it, personal references could cut both ways. Requiring detailed knowledge of your personal life will make your writing harder to understand. On the other hand, comprehension will improve when you use “you” and referring to things your readers care about.

The fog index isn’t infallible

Gunning’s seven factors can help you assess your content’s reader-friendliness. But they’re not infallible.

As Evans says,

Combine readability statistics with common sense. You can write illogical nonsense and get a good score of readability; the classic proof is that if you enter your sample from the last word to the first, you get the same score. Metaphor, analogy, and satire are unrecognized, wit unappreciated. The formulas have tin ears for the rhythm of sentence variety, for word choice, for the energy in the writing.

Test your reading ease online

You can run your text through an online version of the fog index.


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

Note: Updated March 24, 2024.

February newsletter: Do grammar errors affect your heart rate?

Have you ever felt as if your heart skipped a beat upon noticing a grammar error? It’s not just your imagination that bad grammar can affect your heart rate.

When people spot grammar errors, their heart rate variability declines, indicating that they’re stressed. That’s according to a University of Birmingham research study reported on in “Grammar Goofs Make Your Heart Skip: The Stressful Beat of Misused Language” in Neuroscience News.

Flash sale on Financial Blogging

I plan to run a flash sale on the PDF version of my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. Watch your email for details in the week of Feb. 19!

Here’s what advisors say about my book.

  • A great read for advisors who want to blog better—or learn how to start!
    Michael Kitces, Nerd’s Eye View
  • Susan’s words have helped me hone my message and become clearer in my explanations. Through my dedication to blogging, my business has grown as a result. I owe much of my success in business to Susan’s teaching and guidance.
    Dave Grant, Finance for Teachers
  • I wish I had read Susan’s Financial Blogging before I produced 300 weekly posts. There was a lot of practical advice in a slim 13- page guide to producing effective blogs. The blog preparation work sheets should be of particular value to an author who wishes to get smart people to do smart things with their money. My posts will be better for having read the book.
    A. Michael Lipper, Mike Lipper’s blog

Format your content effectively!

The Nielsen Norman Group highlights five techniques you can use to format your content effectively in “5 Formatting Techniques for Long-Form Content”:

  • Summary of key points
  • Text boxes, also known as callouts
  • Bullet points
  • Visual exhibits
  • Highlighting key points

These techniques help to break your content into easily digestible, visually appealing chunks of information.

Inflation calculator

Wondering how much overall U.S. inflation has increased over a specific period? Use the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator.

Shake up your brain!

My approach to using ChatGPT to explain a complex idea is the focus of “Jan. Metaphor Minute: Shake Up Your Brain” by Anne Miller. I was impressed by Anne’s analysis of what came to me instinctively.

This newsletter is moving from Constant Contact

I plan to migrate this newsletter from Constant Contact to my blog—where you are reading it now—and possibly LinkedIn by April 2024, so please bookmark my Investment Writing blog and follow me on LinkedIn. You’ll have fewer messages in your email inbox, and I’ll have fewer platforms to manage because of the change.

Thanks for your understanding!

What my clients say about me

“Fast, effective, insightful. I can think of no better resource for superior financial writing.”

“Susan has an exceptional ability to tailor investment communications to the sophistication level of any audience. She has an uncanny ability to make very complex investment and/or economic topics accessible and understandable to anyone.”

“Susan’s particularly good at working through highly technical material very quickly. That’s very important in this business. A lot of people are good writers, but they have an extensive learning curve for something they’re unfamiliar with. Susan was able to jump very quickly into technical material.”

Read more testimonials!

Improve your investment commentary

Attract more clients, prospects, and referral sources by improving your investment commentary with 44 pages of the best tips from the InvestmentWriting.com blog.

Tips include how to organize your thoughts, edit for the “big picture,” edit line by line, and get more mileage out of your commentary.

Available in PDF format for only $9.99. Buy it now!

Boost your blogging now!

Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients is available for purchase as a PDF ($39) or a paperback ($49, affiliate link).

Hire Susan to speak

Could members of your organization benefit from learning to write better? Hire Susan to present on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read,” “Writing Effective Emails,” or a topic customized for your company.

Q&A format for articles: Good or bad?

The Q&A format has its uses. An FAQ section covering frequently asked questions belongs on many websites. However, this format should be used sparingly for articles.

Q&A format for articles good or bad infographic


FAQs work, so why not Q&A articles?

Unlike articles, FAQs are meant to be searched or skimmed for one question, not read word-for-word. Their readers seek answers to specific questions or solutions for problems, such as “How can I fix it when I get Error Message XYZ?” An FAQ may include many questions, but the reader is interested in one—or only a few—Q&A pairs.

Q&As make it hard to grasp an overall message

The Q&A format makes it harder for readers to grasp your overall message than with an article. A traditional article can offer an introduction, headings, and a skilled writer’s transition between topics.

Q&A interviewees may hold you hostage

The Q&A format works best when your interviewees know how to hit your readers’ hot buttons, and they’re articulate. You can’t count on finding that in every interviewee.

When you choose a Q&A format, you deny yourself the use of paraphrasing. As a reporter, I learned that only lazy reporters always use direct quotes. Paraphrases, which restate what your source said, can be more economical and effective. Plus, a colorful quote stands out better against a background of plain vanilla text.

Q&A format is okay when…

A Q&A format works well when you:

  1. Write FAQs
  2. Keep it short—My gut tells me three questions is a good length. A Q&A may work well as a blog post. I often discuss reader questions on my blog.
  3. Interview a famous person whose fans care about every word he or she utters—Think Taylor Swift and young girls or Warren Buffett and investors.
  4. Add headings—They’ll make it easier for the casual reader to find information that interests them.
  5. Edit the interview transcript—Word-for-word transcripts don’t make anyone look good. At a minimum, cut out the ums, uhs, incomplete sentences that don’t work, and irrelevant material. If you’re interviewing a corporate employee for your company’s newsletter, you can take more liberties, as long as you check with the employee to make sure you haven’t misrepresented him or her.

What do YOU think?

I’m curious to learn what you think about the pros and cons of the Q&A format. If you’ve used it effectively, feel free to share a link.


NOTE: Originally published April 9, 2013. Updated Jan. 14, 2024.

Singular or plural–which is right for $5 million?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a noun is singular or plural. Take this example “$5 million was/were enough.”

When I informally polled some writer friends, four out of five voted for “was.” That sounds right to me, too.

The word “dollars” is plural, but “$5 million” becomes what grammarians call a collective noun.

Think of it this way, a portfolio management team is made up of people, but the team is a single entity so you say “The team was” instead of “The team were.”

On collective nouns, a Grammar Girl blog post written by Bonnie Trenga (but no longer available online) said the following:

Inanimate objects, such as “sugar” or “furniture,” are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and are always singular. So you would say, “This sugar is very sweet” or “My furniture is too old.” You can’t say, “This sugar are” or “My furniture are.” If you want to talk about individual grains of sugar or individual pieces of furniture, then you have to say something like “Eight grains of sugar were found” or “These pieces of furniture are new.”

However, as one of my friends and the Grammar Girl blog pointed out, the British treat collective nouns differently. They combine them with plural verbs. No wonder some of us are confused!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Note: This post was updated on Nov. 30, 2023.

My 2023 reading

Here are some of the most interesting, helpful books that I read during 2023. I hope you’ll find some titles that interest you.


Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Health and Karla Starr. This book has great examples of effective communication with numbers.

Rebel with a Clause: Takes and Tips from a Roving Grammarian by Ellen Jovin

Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less by Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz—The premise of this book resonates with me.

Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business by Kindra Hall—This is an excellent book about how to write compelling stories to use in your marketing. The author providers practical rules and plenty of illustrations of how to apply them.

Watch Your Language! Mother Tongue and Her Wayward Children by Robert Gorrell—This book will interest those of you who enjoy learning about the history of English-language grammar and style. I prefer books that focus on helping me to write better, so this book isn’t for me.

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.



The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations by Robert Livingston

Finding Me by Viola Davis

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty

You Got Anything Stronger? by Gabrielle Union—I didn’t even know who Gabrielle Union was when I started listening to this audiobook, which I got free through The Wall Street Journal. The chapters of her memoir on blackface, blackfishing, and violence against Black people were especially compelling. As a woman without children, I also found fascinating the story of her fertility and surrogacy journey.



Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You by Jessica Cassity

Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World by Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet, and Michiel Kruyt

52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness by Annabel Abs-Streets

Four Seconds by Peter Bregman

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves

The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz

Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most by Cassie Holmes

Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland

How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing by K.C. Davis

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite

Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters by Laura Vanderkam

You Belong: A Call for Connection by Sebene Selassie


Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen

Hell and Other Destinations by Madeleine K. Albright

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Solito by Javier Zamora

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith


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.

Quotation websites for your writing

“What quotation websites do you recommend?” A friend’s question in response to my discussion of “Famous quotes make your commentary memorable” prompted me to ask my virtual assistant to research quotation websites. I’m sharing the results of her research, along with my ideas for other ways to find quotes to spice up your writing.

Quotation websites for your writing infographic

Quotation websites

My VA thinks BrainyQuote is the best of the bunch. It does have the most attractive appearance, and it’s relatively light on distracting advertisements.

Here are the websites she identified, along with some sites I’ve identified since my VA’s initial research.

  • BrainyQuote—This website lets you search by author or topic. You can also sign up for a quote of the day, which may help you discover an unexpected gem. If you post quotes on social media, you may enjoy BrainyQuote’s QuotePictures, quotations against the backdrop of an attractive photograph. You can share the QuotePictures to social media—including Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest—with a couple of clicks.
  • Quoteland—This website has online forums with topics such as “I need a quote.” I haven’t tried the forums, but they might help you when you’re stuck.
  • The Quotations Page
  • Lib Quotes
  • WisdomQuotes.com
  • Quotabelle described its selection as  “inspirational stories + quotes of real women & girls” when I first visited it, but it appears to have gone out of business.

Online searches

You can find quotations by doing an online search. Here’s what I found when I did a Google search on “quotations about money.”

This kind of search may help you to identify other websites that are good sources of quotations.

Some of the sites may be general. For example, Goodreads, a membership site, has a quotations page. The Goodreads quotes page is driven by members adding and tagging quotes they like. You can browse the quotes by their tags. When I checked, one of the top post for “money” was one that I doubt many financial professionals will use in their writing, except as an example of what not to do.

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
― Oscar Wilde

Cool Funny Quotes is a niche site with a humorous twist. Here are the site’s money-related quotes. Like BrainyQuotes, it offers social-media-ready images of quotations.

If you’re thinking in terms of visuals, Pinterest is another site to search. Here are Pinterest’s quotes related to money.


Some books are rich in useable quotes.

Buffett’s Bites: The Essential Investor’s Guide to Warren Buffett’s Shareholder Letters by L.J. Rittenhouse has plenty of great quotes. Unfortunately, it lacks an index.

When you’re looking for quotes, a Kindle or other e-reader may make your research easier. At a minimum, a great index will help.

Compile your own collection of quotations

If you enjoy using quotes in your writing, them save great quotations as you see them. You can find them in anything you read or listen to.

In the old days, I recommended scribbling them in a paper notebook. These days, it’s probably more efficient to save quotes online in a Word document or an app like Evernote or OneNote.

Did they really say it?

Plenty of quotes are mistakenly attributed to famous people. I enjoyed reading a Wall Street Journal review of Garson O’Toole’s Hemingway Didn’t Say That.

The review introduced me to the Quote Investigator website, which explores the origins of famous quotes.


NOTE: updated on Jan. 17, 2021; March 8, 2022; Nov. 4, 2022; and Oct. 5, 2023.

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.