Top posts from 2020’s fourth quarter

Check out my top posts from the fourth quarter!

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

My posts that attracted the most views during 2020’s fourth quarter:

        1. 8 ways to cut word count and boost your impact!—These practical tips will make your writing more effective.
        2. Increase the sonic force of your writing
        3. My 2020 reading, with suggestions for you
        4. Mistake Monday for November 30: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?
        5. Writing tight with Trish Hall

Clarity over cleverness in writing

“Being clear is better than being clever.”

That’s according to “Dan Jones’s top 11 publishing secrets,” ASJA Magazine (March/April 2019). In his article, Martin D. Hirsch reported on tips from the editor of “Modern Love,” a popular column in The New York Times.

To me that means that it’s most important to make your writing easy for readers to understand. A cutesy title or intriguing image may attract readers’ attention. But if readers can’t understand your message, then you and your readers lose.

A little cleverness is fine, but don’t let it sap your clarity.

Increase the sonic force of your writing

Sentences that sound better are likely to read better, too. I’ve discovered this by reading my writing out loud. One way to improve their sound is to increase their sonic force, according to Joe Moran in First You Write a Sentence.

Short words boost sonic force

As Moran explains:

A sentence has more sonic force if there are more stressed than unstressed syllables. When we speak, we stress one syllable of each word. Even polysyllabic words stress only one key syllable, so the more long words there are in a sentence, the fewer stresses it has.

Thus, sentences composed of short words have more stresses. That means more sonic force, too.

Cut syllables for more sonic force

“Cut syllables where you can,” advises Moran. For examples of how to do this, see my posts on “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers” and “More substitutions for economical writers.”

Favor vowels over consonants. “The vowel sound of a syllable is the basic unit of speech. A consonant cannot be fully voiced without it,” says Moran. Good use of short words and varied vowels creates what Moran calls the “chewy vowel music.”

Can you create “chewy vowel music?”

 

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.

Writing tight with Trish Hall

Brevity is a virtue. Tight writing is reader-friendly.

In Writing to Persuade, Trish Hall, a former editor of The New York Times op-ed page writes:

Tight doesn’t mean dull. It means consciously choosing your words and your sentence structure. Go back over the words until you are certain the reader doesn’t have to make undue effort to read, but can sink into the sentences like a bath. No friction.

Look at Hall’s quote above. It’s tight, but it’s not dull. Her original image of “sink into the sentence like a bath” grabbed my attention. I keep turning it over in my head.

 

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.

My 2020 reading, with suggestions for you

Looking for something to read—or to buy as a gift for the holidays? You may find ideas on this list of my 2020 reading.

I especially enjoyed First You Write a Sentence. by Joe Moran (by the way, the period is part of the title; it’s not a typo). My favorite nonfiction book that wasn’t explicitly about the craft of writing was Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, a biography of the woman who wrote “The Lottery,” a haunting short story that I imagine most Americans have read. My favorite novel was The Memory Police, followed by There There in second place.

Writing

First You Write a Sentence. by Joe Moran—Moran writes beautifully about writing. This book inspired many posts on this blog, including posts on: “Read critically, or write badly,” “Down with nouns,” “4 great tips for writing sentences,” “Cutting words is writing,” and “Write better sentences with Joe Moran,”  This was my favorite book of 2020.

The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose by Robert Graves, Alan Hodge

Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side by Trish Hall—This book reinforces essential lessons for writers. It’s an easy read, too.

Racism

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Living and Dying in Brick City: Stories from the Front Lines of an Inner-City E.R. by Sampson Davis and Lisa Frazier Page

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Self-help

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans—There are gazillion books that claim to help you to find what you want to do with your life. This one has some exercises that were new to me. I especially enjoyed the exercise of noting what engages you and what energizes you, so you can put more of those things in your life.

Other nonfiction

Shirley JacksonDeep South by Paul Theroux—Interesting read about poverty, racism, literature, and other aspects explored by Theroux on his drives through the deep South outside its big cities.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin This biography was fascinating for its insights into the situation of women during her life. Also, Jackson is the most famous graduate of my high school, though she only spent one year there. This was one of my favorite books of 2020.

Three Seconds Until Midnight by S. Hatfill, R. Coullhan, and J. Walsh—This 2019 book warns about the risks of a viral pandemic. I dipped into this book as part of my work preparing a quarterly client letter for one of my clients.

Novels

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro—Having lived in Japan for three years, every year I usually read at least one novel set in Japan.

The Confessions of Young Nero (Nero #1) by Margaret George

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Indelicacy by Amina Cain

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa—The story in this novel was unlike anything I’d read before.

A Murderous Malady (Florence Nightingale Mystery #2) by Christine Trent—This was one of many mysteries (too many to list) that I read to unwind.

There There by Tommy Orange

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Top posts from 2020’s third quarter

Check out my top posts from the third quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on writing in general (#1, #3), writing for publication (#2, #5), and spelling (#4).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2020’s third quarter:

  1. 4 great tips for writing sentences
  2. A great way to annoy your editor–This post was inspired by my experience as a magazine editor. There are some writers whom I won’t ask to write for me again.
  3. Write better sentences with Joe Moran–If you read my #1 post, which was also inspired by Joe Moran, you’ve probably figured out that I love his book.
  4. MISTAKE MONDAY for September 28: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?
  5. Tips for writing book reviews–This post also was inspired by my experience as a magazine editor. I share what I learned from the strengths and weaknesses of book reviews that financial professionals have written for me.

 

 

8 ways to cut word count and boost your impact!

Sometimes you need to cut word count (or character count). Maybe you’re answering an asset management RFP or filling a website template that limits your space. Or maybe you realize the document you’re editing is simply too long.

I have eight tips for how you can cut word count. These tips also help if you’re trying to cut your character count.

1. Cut paragraphs and sentences

You’ll lose the biggest number of words at once when you cut entire paragraphs and sentences. Read your document carefully to identify unnecessary blocks of words.

Although you can cut word count most dramatically by using this technique, I sometimes try it only after I’ve made one round of line-by-line edits. Why? Because sometimes I can’t identify superfluous content before closely reading the document.

2. Use Hemingway App

Try the Hemingway App if you don’t know where to start to cut word count. It automatically flags sentences that it considers too long. It also highlights some other potential problems that I discuss below.

I tend to use Hemingway App last because I’m confident about where to start. However, I’m less confident that I’ll catch all problems. Hemingway App has my back.

3. Cut adverbs and adjectives

Many adverbs and adjectives aren’t necessary. That’s especially true when you use a strong verbs and nouns to carry your message.

I agree with Mark Twain. He said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”  Also, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

When you use fewer adverbs and adjectives, you intensify the power of those you do use.

Hemingway App (see tip #2) identifies adverbs for you.

4. Substitute simple words for phrases

For example, “building my knowledge” becomes “learning.” “In advance of” becomes “before.”

A corollary of this tip is “Replace jargon.” However, sometimes removing jargon will boost your word count. That’s OK by me if it makes your document more readable—and you can remain within your word count limits.

You’ll find more examples in my post on “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

5. Replace passive verbs with active ones

For example, “Bond prices were depressed by the Fed’s actions” becomes “The Fed’s actions depressed bond prices.” The “after” version also makes the relationship between cause and effect easier to understand. That’s a double win!

6. Use pronouns

For example, write “it” instead of “investment philosophy,” if you refer to investment philosophy repeatedly and the meaning of “it” is clear from the context.

7. Rethink the content

Think about whether there’s a way to get to your point faster. This can help you implement my first tip. Like my first tip, I often leave this strategy until after a round of line edits has made me more familiar with the content and its flow.

8. Read the content out loud

When you listen to content, you can hear problems that are hard to see when you read only with your eyes.

Recent versions of Microsoft Word have a text-to-speech function called Speak. If you’re working with software that lacks this function, use the workaround I discussed in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.”

Bonus tip: Calculate your word count

If you’re aiming for a specific word count, make sure you know how to turn on the word count feature in Microsoft Word, or whatever software you’re using. This feature also shows character count—with and without spaces. Those spaces can make a difference.

If you’re not working in a program with a word count feature, you can visit a website like wordcounter.net.

The Cloze test for readability

Too much financial content is hard to understand. It uses technical vocabulary. It’s too wordy. It’s poorly organized. But sometimes it’s hard for authors to tell when content doesn’t work. What can they do?

I learned about the Cloze test from reading “Tips and Tools for Consumer Friendly Disclosure” by University of Georgia’s Professor Brenda J. Cude, a National Association of Insurance Commissioners consumer representative. It works as explained in her slide below:

Cloze Test instructions

Let’s experiment to see if the test works.

Cloze test experiment

Here’s a financial disclosure with words blanked out as required by the test. Try to fill them in.

ETFs are subject to ____ fluctuation and the risks ____ their underlying investments. Unlike ____ funds, ETF shares are ____ and sold at market____, which may be higher ____ lower than their NAV, ____ are not individually redeemed ____ the fund.

Options trading entails significant ____ and is not appropriate ____ all investors. Certain complex ____ strategies carry additional risk. ____ trading options, please read ____ and Risks of Standardized____. Supporting documentation for any____, if applicable, will be ____ upon request.

There were 16 blanks in the sample. If you guess 60% (10 words) or more correctly, then the text is considered well-written, according to Cude. Text for which readers score 49% (8 words) or lower needs to be edited, especially if the score is 39% (6 words) or lower, says Cude.

Here is the text of the original disclosure:

ETFs are subject to market fluctuation and the risks of their underlying investments. Unlike mutual funds, ETF shares are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than their NAV, and are not individually redeemed from the fund.

Options trading entails significant risk and is not appropriate for all investors. Certain complex options strategies carry additional risk. Before trading options, please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options. Supporting documentation for any claims, if applicable, will be furnished upon request.

How did you do on this test? I suspect that many of you have read enough financial disclosures that this text tested well.

My doubts

I wonder how good a test this. I figure that a highly redundant text would score well because there are so many clues to the missing words. However, I wouldn’t enjoy reading such text.

I looked around to see how others view the Cloze test. In “Cloze Test for Reading Comprehension,” the Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group speaks well of the test as a way to measure comprehension. “Cloze Tests provide empirical evidence of how easy a text is to read and understand for a specified target audience. They thus measure reading comprehension, and not just a readability score.”

Nielsen makes the interesting point that comprehension is different than readability. (I’ve discussed readability in posts like “7 factors that affect reading ease.”) After all, making a sentence short doesn’t guarantee that the reader will understand it.

As a result, I conclude that the Cloze test can be a useful tool to use along with others that I discuss on this blog and in my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

Thanks, Linda Leitz!

I thank Linda Leitz for drawing my attention to Cude’s work in Leitz’s “Tell it to me like I’m an eighth grader” in the NAPFA Advisor.

Pick your corner as a writer!

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

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

Tips for writing book reviews

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

1. Don’t forget the essentials

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Use quotations, if appropriate

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

4. Bring in personal experience

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

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

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

5. Be critical, but not unkind

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

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

Another resource

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

 

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