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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.

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].

Can “find and replace” prevent quarterly commentary errors?

Most people who write quarterly commentary struggle a bit with errors and typos. I wrote about some of my struggles (and solutions) in “Investment commentary numbers: How to get them right.” As I mentioned in that post, I once made a bad mistake, naming the wrong quarter in my employer’s quarterly commentary. That post prompted a reader to email me with his solution for commentary errors.

Find-and-replace solution

My reader starts his quarterly report by copying and pasting the previous quarter’s report. After updating the numbers, he uses his word processor’s find-and-replace function to update the name of the quarter. For example, he searches for “third quarter,” and then has the software replace it with “fourth quarter.”

This is a great solution for a short, structured quarterly report. In this case, the name of the recently ended quarter will always fall in the same place. This means the find-and-replace solution should function perfectly.

Use caution

If you write a more open-ended quarterly report, you should use the find-and-replace solution cautiously. Why? Because your text for the current quarter may also refer to significant events of the previous quarter.

Using auto-replace to substitute, for example, “fourth quarter” for “third quarter” could result in a sentence like the following: “Unlike in the fourth quarter, small-cap stocks performed well in the fourth quarter.” Oops! You don’t want that to happen.

To catch that kind of error, reading the text out loud is probably the most effective technique.

Your suggestions for catching commentary errors?

I always learn from your comments and suggestions. Please keep sending them to me.

Writers, eat your greens!

Eat your greens! For many people, that means eating foods that they don’t enjoy, but which are good for them. In the writing world, I think a comparable challenge is proofreading your text and checking on fine points of grammar. Here are some steps I suggest to help you eat your metaphorical greens.

1. Finish your drafts early

When you finish writing something before its deadline, you can approach it with fresh eyes for a final review. With fresh eyes, you’re more likely to catch errors of reasoning, grammar, or other areas.

2. Use tools and people to help you proofread and copyedit

It’s not easy to proofread or copyedit your own work, as my husband reminds me when he proofreads my monthly newsletter.

Online tools that check your spelling, grammar, and wordiness can complement your work. My recent post on “The compelling white paper that wasn’t” includes links to tools.

However, online tools won’t catch every mistake. For example, it won’t catch the investment professional with the title “portfolio manger” instead of “portfolio manager” with the additional “a.” That’s why it’s good to get a colleague or professional proofreader to review your work. Also, consider using the tip I describe in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading” to catch errors that eyes tend to gloss over.

If organization—not grammar—is your stumbling block, use my first-sentence check.

3. Have reliable references handy

You can’t buy or find online one of the most powerful tools for catching your errors. That’s a customized checklist that lists your most common errors. For example, if you often make “Bloggers’ top two punctuation mistakes,” add them to your checklist.

My favorite online resources include:

If you have a budget, you can subscribe to online resources from AP Style or the Chicago Manual of Style. I have mixed feelings about AP Styleguard software.

You can’t find all of the answers online. That’s why my library includes “My five favorite reference books for writers.”

The result?

If you follow these three tips, you’ll produce cleaner, better organized writing. That’ll make your writing more compelling and effective.

Tip for bloggers

Bloggers sometimes ask me where I get my ideas for posts on this blog. Today’s post was inspired by the image that accompanies it. When the image appeared as a free download from Depositphotos, a website I use to source some of my photos, it made me think about how many people don’t like greens. My mind quickly bounced to the tasks that writers don’t like.

Images can be a great source of blog post ideas. For more ideas on how to find inspiration in images, read “Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration.”

2018 financial bogging class

Learn more about my financial blogging class!

Investment commentary numbers: How to get them right

Investment commentary calls for lots of numbers: benchmark and portfolio returns, economic data, and more. When you get those numbers wrong, you undercut your credibility and embarrass yourself.

I have some ideas about how you can avoid mistakes by proofreading and checking your facts.

My expensive mistake

A bad experience impressed me with the importance of checking numbers. Reading the professionally printed copy of my employer’s third-quarter commentary, I noticed a goof. It referred to the second quarter, instead of the third quarter, in one spot. This happened even though four of us had read the piece before it went to the printer. However, the eye tends to read what it expects to see. We all glossed over my error. Oops!

That was an expensive mistake because we had to get the piece reprinted. However, at least we avoided the embarrassment of clients seeing our mistake. Also, it spurred me to develop techniques for catching numerical errors.

Tip 1. Add numbers to your checklist

Checklists, which I recommend in “5 proofreading tips for quarterly investment reports,” can help you catch numerical errors. For a typical quarterly investment publication, I’d add two kinds of numerical items to remind you to check for accuracy and timeliness.

  • Calendar information—record the current year, quarter, and ending date for the quarter. I don’t know about you but I sometimes can’t remember how many days there are in June so it’s handy to know that I should write about “the period ended June 30.”
  • Major index returns for the relevant periods—if you’re writing about multiple investment styles and periods, you’ll use multiple index returns. If possible, run a report that shows only the relevant returns and displays them in a logical order. If you lack the access to run or customize reports, create your own list and proofread it carefully.

After you’ve completed your writing, make one pass through your document to check that you’ve used the right calendar information and returns.

Tip 2. Standardize your sources for index returns

If you’re new to writing about investments, you might think, “The S&P 500 Index return for the fourth quarter is the S&P 500 Index return for the fourth quarter.” Uh uh. There’s not just one number. For example, the return number that comes directly from Standard & Poor’s may diverge from the number spit out by your firm’s performance measurement system. Which will you use?

Your firm needs to decide which are the official sources for index returns. And then, stick with using those sources. By the way, it’s also good to create a rule for how many places to the right of the decimal point you’ll go in reporting returns.

You should create similar rules for reporting portfolio returns, too.

Tip 3. Document sources for other numbers

What about sources for other numbers? Document those as you write.

Footnotes can track your sources. Insert a footnote with your data source. Insert a link to the data if one is available. It’ll make fact-checking easier later on.

Tip 4. Use a fact-checker

Just as it’s hard for you to proofread your own work, it’s hard for you to fact-check it. You’ll tend to see what you expect to see.

If you have an employee, colleague, or friend who can help, ask that person to compare every number to its approved source. Being unfamiliar with numbers, they’re more likely to pick up on mistakes.

Don’t have a helper? Fact-checking will still catch some errors. I know it works for me, especially if I concentrate solely on fact-checking in one pass through my document.

Tip 5. Catch contradictory numbers with informed readers

How can you catch two authors using contradictory numbers? Say, for example, one author says U.S. economic growth was 2.2% while another says it was 2.5%. Both provide a source for their numbers, as suggested in Tip 3, but they don’t match. If you’re lucky, your fact checker will catch the disparity. But you can’t count on it.

There’s a higher chance of catching the error if you have the two authors with overlapping topics read each other’s articles. Ask them to look for inconsistencies. Another approach is to get a third party to look for inconsistencies. You might even ask them to list all of the document’s numbers from non-standardized sources. That would make it easier to see that there are multiple sources for a single number. All of this takes a lot of time.

There’s no easy way to catch these contradictory numbers. If you have ideas about how to solve this problem, I’d like to hear from you.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 proofreading tips for quarterly investment reports

Proofreading quarterly investment communications stresses people. Tight deadlines and client demands add to the pressures on a small department. However, creating checklists and processes will ease the strain. I have some suggestions to help you be accurate and avoid stylistic inconsistencies and typos.

This post started as a response to the tweet you see here.Tweet asking about proofing

1. Create checklists for data

There’s nothing worse than sending out a third-quarter report that’s labeled as a second-quarter report. This almost happened to me early in my days as a director of investment communications. That near miss inspired my love of checklists.

When writing quarterly communications, create a list of data that must be updated. This is especially important if you start writing in a quarterly template document that holds the last quarter’s data.

Another way that I manage this when updating documents with previous-quarter data is to turn on Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” feature. I know that most of the document should turn red with changes before I “accept all changes” and start proofreading.

A variation of this data checklist is a list of common errors that you review just before you hit “send” on your document.

2. Create a style guide

Typos, poor punctuation, and stylistic inconsistencies are more likely when you lack a style guide. You can adopt a standard style guide, such as the Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. However, you still benefit from a style guide specific to your company. Your guide will cover issues those guides avoid, such as how to spell the plural of “Treasury” or whether a portfolio is overweight “in” or “to” a sector.

3. Use technology that identifies weaknesses

Your word processing software’s grammar and spell checker isn’t perfect, but it’s still worthwhile. I supplement mine with PerfectIt software, which checks for consistency in your usage.

There’s also software that will help you to identify larger issues of style and grammar. Hemingway is a free app that assesses the difficulty level of your sentences and suggests some ways to improve them. I thank Bill Winterberg of FPPad for pointing me to “hOw wE eDiT wRiTTeN cOnTenT,” Alyce Currier’s article on Wistia  that introduced me to Hemingway. Grammarly is another option, but I haven’t tried it.

4. Read your work out loud—or get software to read it

When you do heavy editing, it’s hard for you to see the typos and other weaknesses in your work. That’s why I use Adobe Acrobat Pro to read out loud, as I described in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.” I can hear problems that I can’t see.

5. Use a fresh pair of eyes

In an ideal world, a professional proofreader will review your work. That happens at some of my larger clients. When my client agreement permits, I often hire an outside proofreader to review the first complete draft. A pro who knows the industry will do the best job but any set of competent fresh eyes is likely to help.

If you lack the luxury of outside help, see if a colleague can review your work. Or, leave your work overnight—or at least for an hour—before you review it with fresh eyes.

More resources

For more proofreading tips, check out “Six ways to stop sending emails with errors.” You can test your proofreading skills weekly with Mistake Monday.  Check the Investment Writing Facebook page on Monday mornings.

Six ways to stop sending emails with errors
Six ways to stop sending emails with errors

 

Do you have tips for proofreading? Please join the conversation.

Image courtesy of num_skyman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

NOTE: This post was updated to remove a reference to the free Consistency Checker, which is no longer available.