Solve the right problem

“A great solution to the wrong problem will always fail,” says Nielsen Norman Group’s Sarah Gibbons in her three-minute video on “User Need Statements in Design Thinking.” Nielsen Norman Group consults on website usability. However, much of what Gibbons discusses applies to other written materials, too.

User need statement

Gibbons defines a user need statement as “An actionable problem statement used to summarize who a particular user is, the user’s need, and why the need is important to that user.” Understanding this information will help you write better communications of all kinds. That includes blog posts, articles, white papers, and even emails.

It interested me that she spoke about the need to empathize with the user.

More resources

If you prefer to learn from written materials instead of video, check out Gibbons’ article on “User Need Statements: The ‘Define’ Stage in Design Thinking.”

To learn about my approach to understanding your audience, read my blog post on identifying “What problem does this blog post solve for them?” and my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.


The image in the upper left is courtesy of Free photobank [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Describing an interview-based assignment to writers

Recently a company contacted me to write an interview-based post for its blog. I’ve often done this for blog posts that show off the expertise of the company’s staff. However, what was unusual about this request was that I’d need to interview experts outside the company for the post. The need to find external experts makes an interview-based assignment more time-consuming and less attractive to writers. It’s more like writing a magazine article than a typical content marketing piece.

I learned later that the company’s marketing director had omitted an important piece of information when it described its interview-based assignment. It could have reduced my qualms about accepting an assignment requiring interviews of external experts. I describe it below.

The challenges of using external experts

Using external experts is challenging for two reasons.

First, it takes time to find and schedule them. If the writer doesn’t know relevant experts, a good deal of networking may be required to find them. That’s especially true if there’s no trade association or other group where such experts gather.

Scheduling can be more challenging than when working with a company’s internal experts. Internal experts are motivated to participate for the good of their employer (though they still can be challenging to schedule, but that’s another story). External experts don’t feel a pressing need for your company to succeed at its marketing.

Second, the experts may not wish to use their expertise on behalf of the company that’s your client. It’s generally less prestigious to appear on a corporate blog or in a corporate magazine than in a publication that’s perceived as independent. Also, the expert may worry about appearing to endorse the products or services offered by your client. On the other hand, some corporate publications don’t quote experts by name. That’s even worse because the expert gets no visibility in exchange for sharing insights.

The missing information

After I turned down the interview-based assignment, I learned that the marketing director had unwittingly withheld a piece of information that would have made it more attractive. He told me that he planned to find experts for the writer. That was potentially a big timesaver for the writer.

Of course, just naming experts isn’t enough. For the reasons mentioned above, experts may not want to help a corporate publication. However, if you’re a marketer assigning articles, and you can promise cooperative sources to your outside writers, that’s a big plus. Don’t hide that; feature it!

Of course, there’s other information that writers will seek, including:

  • Your topic, defined as specifically as possible
  • Pay
  • Word count
  • Place of publication
  • Target audience and why they’ll care about your topic
  • Your timeline and editing process

When you provide complete information up front, you’ll get a more realistic price from your writer. Also, the entire writing and editing process will go more smoothly.

One idea to a sentence

“One idea to a sentence” is the title of a section in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. It’s also a darned good idea for financial writers.

Bernstein advises this approach for “those kinds of writing in which instant clarity and swift reading, which are other ways of saying quick comprehension, are dominant desiderata.”

Research favors shorter average sentence length

Bernstein cites research showing that articles with a shorter average sentence length are more easily understood.

He explains:

…in other words, a few sentences of three or four words offset some rather long sentences and pulled the average down. Still, although there were some rather long sentences, there were no complicated ones.

This analysis led to the one-idea-per-sentence approach. That’s partly because “Confining a sentence to a single thought will usually reduce the number of words.”

If the folks whose work I edit took this approach, I would spend less time breaking long sentences into two or even three sentences. This kind of editing is an easy way to boost readers’ comprehension.

No splinters, please

Of course, I must be careful not to create what Bernstein calls a “splinter.” Sometimes, as Bernstein says, “a writer or an editor ineptly splits a long sentence, then finds himself holding a meaningless splinter like this: ‘The charge came after an assertion by District Attorney Hogan.’ “ This is part of what writing guru Bryan Garner means when he calls for “no brevity without substance.” I think he and Bernstein have similar philosophies about the characteristics of good sentences.

I also tend to favor one idea per blog post. But that’s a topic for another day.


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 photo in the upper left has is courtesy of Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha [CC BY-SA]

Down with nouns!

Joe Moran, the author of First You Write a Sentence. hates how people abuse nouns, sometimes abetted by the passive voice.

He says Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann defended himself at the Nuremberg War Trials “With an impenetrable shield of nouns.” For example, “He described his role as ‘emigration specialist.’ The Auschwitz death trains were ‘evacuation transport.’ ”

That’s not just using nouns, it’s using nouns that obscure the true meaning—they’re euphemisms.

Nouns shed responsibility

Moran dislikes noun-heavy writing:

In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. Instead of saying that x is not working (verb and participle), they say there has been a loss of functionality (two nouns) in x. These words are not even trying to illuminate; they are immunizing themselves against the world. The aim, even if unknown to the writer, is to bore the reader into not looking closely at the words. Instead of inviting a response, as writing should, it shuts it down.

Verbs bring writing to life

The solution to “nouny writing” is to “disinter the buried verbs and bring them back to life by reverbing them,” says Moran. He believes in “restoring the proper links between the nouns by adding verbs and prepositions, even if this means using more words.”

Moran sets the bar high, saying that writers should use strong verbs to connect the nouns. That means limiting use of forms of the verb “to be” and of the passive voice.

“The passive voice thwarts our healthy desire to ascribe acts to actors and give events a sense of verbal drive,” Moran says. Ooh, I like the verb “thwart”! One-syllable words tend to be stronger. (Of course, “be” is a big exception.) Still, he sees a use for the passive voice, which is sometimes “more truthful.”

Moran is a big fan of verbs, saying “put them next to other words and they are as life-giving to the sentence as light and air to the world.”

Nouns versus verbs

“Nouns and verbs are the two poles of the sentence. Nouns keep it still; verbs make it move,” says Moran. In the end, “Every sentence has to mix the right blend of nouns and verbs.”


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.

What “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” taught me about writing

Today’s guest post comes to you from business writer Anne Brennan.

What “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” taught me about writing

By Anne Brennan

Between the political climate and writing deadlines, sometimes you just need a break.

I’m not really into cars, and I drink coffee strictly for the caffeine, but I do like to laugh, so I am hooked on Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

Ironically, I pressed “Play” for the hilarity, but I found out that Seinfeld and his buddies really talk about the writing process and how they mine their lives for material. I find it fascinating.

Does your writing need a jolt? Check these out tips from some of your fave comedians.

1. Keep sharp.

It’s fascinating to see big-time comedians like Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin admit that they are too chicken to jump back onto the comedy stage. They think they lost their edges, and it feels too intimidating. This episode was obviously before Eddie Murphy returned to SNL and killed. (See, I’m picking up the lingo.)

Writing daily in a journal or working on small writing projects helps keep you in the flow, so you don’t have to start from scratch when it’s time to produce material.

2. Work or play?

In one moment, Seinfeld makes Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld,” laugh so hard David does a spit-take at the diner. Seinfeld asks: “How did we get any work done?” Their camaraderie has endured, obviously. Ironically, David always hoped the show would get canceled so he didn’t have to write any more episodes.

I had the impression Seinfeld was basically retired, as he quips he doesn’t need money, but then he reveals he works three out of four weekends…and then all of a sudden there are images of him starring in Las Vegas. Hmmm…sounds like work to me.

If writing starts to feel like work, switch to play mode. Write about something fun, take a break, play with your dog, whatever helps shift you from drudgery to enjoyment.

3. Embrace the inner critic.

Every writer has an inner critic. Imagine what it’d be like to have this critic in actual human form, as an audience member, heckler, or even professional paid critic, scowling as you share your writing. Comedians know this is just part of the deal. Some of the funniest stories are about the times they bombed, or how they handled a heckler. Chris Rock shares a story about bombing so badly that HE had to pay the comedy club manager $50 and beg his dad for a ride home.

Suddenly, MY inner critic looks pretty nice.

If you’re questioning yourself during the creative process, acknowledge it. The more you write, the more you’ll develop resilience, just like the comedians.

4. What’s the big idea?

You’d think “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” would focus a lot on show biz talk like agents, tours, and how to land a Netflix deal. Actually, there’s a lot of talk about ideas between the comedians.

Ideas are everything, and not just in show business. This dawned on me when I worked at the Chicago Tribune. The job description said writer/editor, but I felt like I was an idea factory. Everyone was always asking for an idea, in one form or the other.

Seinfeld’s strategy for brainstorming? You just wait. The idea will come. Dave Chappelle lets the idea–no matter how crazy–be the “driver.” He’s basically there for the ride. He puts his ego in the backseat and lets the idea–say, a blind, black white supremacist–take over.

Writers should run with their big ideas.

5. Use sweat equity.

Some guests are NERVOUS. Seth Rogen is visibly sweating during his interview. “Are you nervous?” Seinfeld asks, sipping his coffee.

“Jerry, don’t do this to me,” Rogen says, begging him not to point it out.

If your writing is boring you, take a chance and go a little deeper. Choose a topic that means something to you. Break a sweat.

6. Reasonable doubt shouldn’t stop you.

Are you a little reluctant to submit your blog, white paper, or novel to someone? You have good company. It amazes me that a few of the legendary comedians subtly ask Seinfeld if their episode is going all right. The episodes are about 18 minutes long. At a few points, the guests—this includes David Letterman—ask if the filming is continuing because they’re not providing enough funny material. News flash: Seinfeld was enjoying their company so that’s why they continued filming.

Feeling a little doubtful your writing is hitting the mark? You’ve got good company. Keep on truckin’, so to speak.

7. Use a surprise ending.

Seinfeld interviews a variety of comedians, from his hero, Jerry Lewis, to current star Sebastian Maniscalco. It’s inspiring to see how their stories intertwine, how they started their careers and the twists and turns of fate. You never know where an idea will take you, that’s the fun part of writing…and life. You can see the shock passing over Maniscalco’s face when Seinfeld asks him what he’s doing later after they film.

“Want to come over for dinner?” Seinfeld asks.

Maniscalco’s about to say, “That would be fan…tastic,” but he regains his composure to finish the sentence. His reply: “That would be… fascinating.”

It was hilarious.

Anne Brennan is a freelance writer whose credits include: Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Crain’s Chicago Business and Yoga Journal. ​Find writing tips and info at her LinkedIn profile.

Read critically, or write badly

The two sentences below from Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence resonated with me. Trying to explain why bad sentences exist, he says:

The writer knew what she wanted to say, thought she had said it, and gave up reading and listening. To write well, you need to read and audit your own words, and that is a much stranger and more unnatural act than any of us know.

One problem is that what we as writers want to say is clear to us. As we skim what we’ve written, the mind fills in missing information and relationships between one sentence and another. As a result, we mistakenly think that all is well with our sentences.

How can you fight your mind’s tendency to gloss over problems when editing your own writing? Below you’ll find one suggestion from Moran, and more solutions from me.

5 ways to fight


1. Write more slowly in the first place

Moran says:

Most of us, when we write, march too quickly on to the next sentence. To write intelligibly is hard enough, so be sure you have done that first. Fix your sights on making one sane, sound, serviceable sentence. As a farmer must do, hold your nerve and resist the impulse to put your energies into cash crops with quick returns. Have the confidence to leave fields fallow, to wait patiently for the grain to grow and to bear with the dry seasons.

Try his approach. You may enjoy it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel too pressured most of the time to write slowly. However, taking this approach sometimes is a nice change of pace.

2. Let it marinate

It’s hard to edit something immediately after writing it. I can catch some problems right away. Others take time to surface. This is why I sometimes write out posts by hand, and then scan and send them to my virtual assistant to input into a Word document or directly into WordPress. I do another round of editing after the posts have been typed.

I can see problems more clearly once the ideas have had time to marinate in my mind after I initially put them on paper. Some people call this approach “sleeping on it.”

Some of the problems I find are those Moran discusses when he explains how “A sentence can confuse in countless ways.” He points to small word choices with big, bad consequences:

Prepositions confuse because they so easily shapeshift into conjunctions or adverbs in the reader’s head. A poorly placed for or as is enough to lead the reader astray. Since can mean “because” but also “after that time.” While can mean “although” but also “during that time.” Prepositional phrases confuse if they are too far away from what they modify. I wrote my speech while flying to Paris on the back of a sick bag. Even over-correctness confuses. When you strain to avoid splitting an infinitive, believing (wrongly) that splitting one is wrong, it can draw attention to itself and give the reader pause.

Also, the time that passes since that writing allows me to read my work more objectively and sometimes inspires additional ideas.

With my “how-to” blog posts, I often write a bare-bones list of steps in my first draft. Then, I add flesh to those bones in the second draft.

3. Use techniques for self-analysis

To check whether my writing flows well from paragraph to paragraph, I use my first-sentence check for writers. If you read the first sentence of every paragraph out loud, can you understand the gist of your argument? If so, you pass the test. If not, you have work to do.

Another way to test your text, is to read it out loud. This is great for finding typos and other outright mistakes, as I’ve explained before. It also helps you to notice subtler problems with rhythm and arguments. Somehow, when you read out loud, it’s harder for the brain to fill in the missing pieces without noticing your writing’s weaknesses.

You can also create a checklist of your most common mistakes, and then check to see if those mistakes have snuck into the text.

You’ll find more tests sprinkled throughout my blog, including a technique for underlining your way to less financial jargon.

4. Get external help

Some automated help is available. For example, there are grammar and style tools, such as PerfectIt, that can check for basic mistakes. Hemingway goes beyond them to help you identify overly wordy writing. Some of my newsletter subscribers have told me that Hemingway has made a dramatic difference in their writing.

Alternatively, you can hire a professional editor to review your work. (Or, even hire a professional writer to write whatever you need.) As a writer-editor myself, I think that’s a great idea. Still, budgets don’t always permit outside help. And, you can’t hire a writer to write all of your communications.

Less expensive is getting help from non-professional writers. For example, you can ask for feedback from your colleagues or members of your target audience. As I’ve said elsewhere, don’t simply ask them, “What do you think?” or “Do you understand?” Instead, ask them “What is my main message, and can you explain it in your own words?” It’s easy for someone to parrot back your introductory paragraph. It’s much harder to explain it using their own words.

5. Figure out what works for you

Different techniques work best for different people—or situations. Experiment to see what works best for you.


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 Studio GOOD Berliny [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Stilettos in the gym

Something that seems out of place can command your attention. This works in writing as well as in real life.

Surprise at the gym

The other day, a woman walked into the mirrored stretching room at my gym wearing a body-hugging t-shirt, tights, and sneakers. She sat down and strapped on shoes with skinny heels that must have been at least four inches tall. I’ve never worn such high heels—not even for a minute—and I’ve never seen anyone wearing heels in my gym. In fact, one of the trainers lectured me about wearing flat, rubber-soled, tightly strapped sandals in the gym, so now I’m scared to wear anything other than sneakers in the workout areas.

The woman stood up, stripped off her t-shirt to reveal a sports bra, and then started sidestepping the length of the room. She displayed what I decided was a come-hither smile directed at the mirror.

I couldn’t stop looking. It wasn’t very nice of me, but I was trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, I decided that she must be rehearsing for a dance performance.

Given the height of her heels, I can understand why she needed to practice in the actual shoes she’d wear in her performance. She probably couldn’t practice as effectively at home, because how many people have 30-foot-long mirrored rooms at home to help them critique their performance?

Lesson for writers

Did you look at this post because you couldn’t figure out what stilettos were doing at the gym? Or what stilettos were doing on an investment writing blog?

What are “stilettos” that you can use in your writing?

Unusual metaphors can attract readers to your writing. As Joe Moran says in First You Write a Sentence, “A fresh metaphor briefly excites the brain. It is odd enough for readers to notice but plausible enough for them to accept its slight recalibration of the world.”

By the way, here’s an explanation of metaphor vs. analogy vs. simile. I get these confused all the time.

I hope you find some good stilettos soon.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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 Tony Webster [CC BY-SA 3.0]