Morningstar is a company that values good writing as well as robust content. So I’m delighted to have Ryun Patterson, managing editor of Morningstar Advisor, as a guest blogger with some great tips to help advisors improve their writing.
A Magazine Editor’s Top Tips for Improving Advisors’ Writing
By Ryun Patterson
As our team assembles Morningstar Advisor magazine every other month, I read and edit lots of investment-related writing. This experience (as with most reading) has given me some strong opinions on what constitutes good finance writing and what is, shall we say, suboptimal. One of Morningstar’s core values is “Investors Come First,” so I’d love to share some tips that advisors can keep in mind when they’re writing for their clients or the general public.
Advisors read a lot of technical writing, from white papers to prospectuses. This familiarity can lead to imitation, but unless you’re writing a white paper or prospectus, you should avoid the temptations of jargon and alphabet soup. Yes, it sounds extremely classy (fancy and sophisticated, even) to say that something is “accumulating size,” but it’s really just growing. And the allure of ROAs, ROEs, and ROICs is great, but your writing will be better understood, especially in shorter pieces, if you just spell these abbreviations out. You readers may not thank you for it, but they’ll definitely read the whole article instead of quitting in frustration halfway through.
The ranks of advisors and investors has grown so much in the past couple of decades that investing writers have got to stop making assumptions about their audience. The use of figures of speech that are normally reserved for sports broadcasters is a prime culprit here. Football fans might easily understand “keep your head on a swivel,” but the audience for investment writing has grown to the point that this kind of language can now be a barrier to comprehension rather than a connection formed through a shared interest. This extends to commentary that extends to political and religious references as well; being “politically correct” doesn’t have to be a priority, but readers will lose sight of genuine wisdom if it’s cloaked in a contentious point of view.
There’s a class of investment words that pose as regular words but pull double-duty in the investment world to describe complex ideas. One example pulled from Morningstar’s writing guide is the word “duration.” Because this word has the temerity to be both noun that regular folks use in everyday conversation AND a noun that represents a measure of interest-rate sensitivity, Morningstar writers and editors always write “duration, a measure of interest-rate sensitivity” on first reference, just to make it clear that this duration is not your standard one. A little bit of thought in this arena goes a long way, as do hyperlinks or referrals to sites like Investopedia or Morningstar.com’s investing classroom.
Don’t: Dumb Down
Advisors writing for their clients or other investors should embrace the chance to be educators. Topics like basic asset allocation are no-brainers for investing professionals, but the key to explaining these isn’t using phrases like “everybody knows that…” or, more extremely, “Only an idiot would…” Instead, use concrete facts and figures to show, rather than tell, your readers why investing basics exist. This kind of communication is the best way to form a resonant, lasting relationship with your readers. Nobody likes to be patronized, and investors that feel like alienated idiots are less likely to ask important questions when it’s time to make important decisions.
If you’ve got a day for reading and want to improve your writing, there’s no better book I can recommend than Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s less than 100 pages long, but it’s as essential for writers as Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis is for investing professionals. It has never steered me wrong, and it can do a lot for any aspiring writer.
Ryun Patterson is managing editor of Morningstar Advisor magazine, the magazine of investment insights for independent-minded advisors. Advisors can get a free subscription by going to Morningstaradvisor.com and clicking the “Subscribe” link on the upper right-hand side of the page.