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12 steps to rewrite long articles

What’s the best process to rewrite long articles written by someone other than you? You may get some ideas from my 12-step process. I start by assessing the article’s strengths and weaknesses. Next, I rewrite the article, including its graphs, callouts, and anything else that isn’t part of the main text. Finally, I run several checks on the document. You can rewrite long articles with confidence if you follow this process.

rewrite long articles

1. Diagram the article

When clients ask me to rewrite long articles, sometimes they’ll point out the problems they’d like me to address. But, more often, they’ll simply ask me to tighten up and improve the document. I need to quickly get a sense of what the article says, and whether its overall structure works. Mind mapping helps me with this.

I use mind mapping to diagram the current structure and main points of the article. I put the article’s topic in a circle in the middle of the page, then draw a line from that circle for each section. From each “section line” I draw more lines—typically one for every paragraph. I then add as many details on separate lines as I feel are important for me to understand the article.

As I go through, I also note text that will need more work, poorly placed or designed exhibits, and anything else that will need work during the rewriting process. I might mark this on a printed copy of the article.

Next, I look at the mind map to grasp the article’s main points. This high-level view also helps me to spot missing or poorly arranged information, as I explained in “Mind maps: can they win buy-in for your writing?

Here’s a mind map that suggests the need to add a new topic—frontier markets—to a paper about investing outside the U.S. I discuss it in more detail in “Mind maps: can they win buy-in for your writing?

After mind mapping, I often write bullet points that say in my own language what I see as the article’s main points. I’ll typically bounce these off the client to get confirmation. However, busy clients—especially those who aren’t the subject-matter experts—often leave me on my own.

2. Rewrite your long article

I start rewriting by editing the introduction to ensure that it introduces the article’s important themes. I believe in giving away the main points in the article’s beginning. I feel this prepares the reader’s mind to accept the arguments that follow. I repeat this process at the start of each major section of the article. Sometimes I’ll have jotted down new introductory sentences for the sections while I was diagramming the article. That means I only need to adapt the sentence to work in its new home.

At the top of every paragraph, I check that the initial sentence gives the main point or topic of the rest of the paragraph. That way, I know that later the article will pass my first-sentence check.

I also work to simplify and clarify every sentence. My goal is to make the article as reader-friendly as possible. Wherever possible, I cut text that’s redundant or irrelevant.

During this phase, I use Microsoft Word’s comments feature to ask questions and make suggestions.

3. Improve graphs and other exhibits

Graphs and other exhibits can boost the power of your writing. But their significance often isn’t immediately obvious to your readers.

I like the approach that some of my clients take. They give the exhibit a short title, as most folks do. But they also add a caption that explains the exhibit’s meaning. I create or check captions so they’re easy to understand—or, at least as easy as a complex graphic can be.

I also check that the exhibit is located as close as possible to the text to which it refers.

4. Add callouts

Sometimes clients ask me to add callouts or pull quotes to engage people who skim their articles. Callouts are blocks of text—often quotes from the article—that are highlighted by their design or location. Similar to movie trailers, “They show just enough of the best stuff to get the reader to buy a ticket for the full show,” says Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications.

Callouts add visual interest. They can also help your designer avoid awkward page breaks by filling space that would otherwise go empty. That’s important when I’m filling one of my other roles, as the editor of a monthly print magazine. When you rewrite long articles to include callouts, you make it more likely that readers will read the entire piece—or at least skim it.

5. Perform first-sentence check

When your reader can grasp the gist of your argument by reading the first sentence of every paragraph, you’ve passed my first-sentence check.

I explain the details in “Quick check for writers, with an economic commentary example.” I also explain what to do when your article fails this test.

6. Run spellchecking software

Running spellchecking software may help you catch obvious errors. Still, the software isn’t infallible, as shown by the example of the “portfolio manger”—instead of “manager”—in an investment firm’s pitch book. That’s why I use other software tools, too.

7. Run PerfectIt

PerfectIt is software that’s particularly good at finding problems of inconsistent usage. For example, did you hyphenate a term in one place but not another? Or, did you refer to a financial planner as both an “advisor” and an “adviser”? Of course, human judgment is required because sometimes such inconsistent usage is correct.

I’ve written about PerfectIt in “My three main software tools for proofreading.”

8. Run Grammarly

I use Grammarly grammar-checking software, which checks different issues than PerfectIt. However, like PerfectIt, it also incorrectly flags some usages as wrong. Ultimately, it finds enough errors that I continue to use it when time permits. I find it good at identifying missing articles and unnecessary words.

9. Use Speak

I use Speak, Microsoft Word’s text-to-voice function to read an article paragraph by paragraph. As I explained in an earlier post about my use of a text-to-voice function, when you read only with your eyes, “you naturally fill in missing words and correct other mistakes in your mind.”

10. Check for the client’s style

When a client’s style guide calls for a style that I don’t typically use, I try to check on any major differences. For example, I love the serial comma, but not all of my clients do. Or, they may spell out “percent” while I’m accustomed to using a percentage sign. These differences are easy to check using Word’s search function.

11. Double-check exhibits and formatting

I scan exhibits to see if they have all of the necessary elements, such as a title and a source line. I also check the article’s formatting, especially to make sure that the hierarchy of headings is correct.

12. Review comments

I check that my comments using Microsoft Word’s Comments feature are reasonably easy to understand.

Hit “send” with confidence!

After completing step #12, I’m ready to send the revised text to my client.

If you follow my process, you can feel more confident that you’ve caught errors and improved the document that you’ve rewritten.

My three main software tools for proofreading

Proofreading is hard. Your eyes gloss over mistakes because they see what they expect to see. (At least, mine often do this.) They read “portfolio manger” as “portfolio manager,” adding the missing “a.” This is why I use three software tools (other than spell-checking software) when accuracy and style matter most. The first tool is free; the others require annual subscriptions.

1. Microsoft Word’s Speak feature

Speak, the text-to-voice feature of Microsoft Word, is the most powerful tool I use for proofreading. It helps me catch problems that automated proofreading tools can’t catch. Of course, my process is challenging to use because it requires my active participation.

Here’s the process I suggest to you.

  1. Highlight one paragraph in your document, then click the Speak icon so your computer reads it out loud. (You may want to add Speak to your Quick Access Toolbar if it’s not there already.)
  2. Keep your eyes on your document as you listen carefully to your computer reading it out loud. This will help you catch typos like “portfolio manger.” It’ll also help you identify sentences that are clunky or other problems that you’ve missed.
  3. Correct mistakes as you go. Otherwise, you may forget to fix them.
  4. After you correct a sentence, have Word read it out loud again. Every time you edit something, you introduce the possibility of human error. A second reading has saved me from inflicting embarrassing mistakes on my clients.

Other Microsoft Office software—PowerPoint and Outlook—also offers Speak. Adobe Acrobat also offers a form of text-to-voice reading, as I discussed in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.” Before I upgraded to a version of Word that includes Speak, I used to convert my Word documents to PDFs so Adobe could read them out loud to me.

2. PerfectIt

An earlier version of PerfectIt software was called the Consistency Tracker. I love that this software searches for consistency of punctuation and spelling. For example, do you spell a financial planner’s profession as “advisor” or “adviser”?

Of course, this consistency checking has its frustrations, too. It can’t appreciate that you hyphenate a term as a compound modifier but not as a standalone. For example, “financial planning” versus “financial-planning software.” Still the software makes it easy to view all examples of one spelling at a glance, so you can selectively change it with one click.

The software also checks for problems such as inconsistency in your bullets, whether you forgot to close quotes or brackets, and whether you have unnecessarily introduced an abbreviation because you only use the term once.

The software also:

  • Tells you if you’ve left comments or tracked changes in your document
  • Converts two or more spaces to one, which is important when I work on manuscripts with two spaces after periods
  • Allows you to select different forms of English (American, Australian, British, or Canadian) or style guides (but not AP style nor Chicago Manual of Style) and to develop multiple custom styles, a feature I haven’t yet used

I use PerfectIt’s add-in for Microsoft Word on a PC using Microsoft Office, but there’s also a cloud version, so you can use it in Microsoft Word on any device.

3. StyleGuard

StyleGuard checks your document’s adherence to the standards in the Associated Press Stylebook. If your organization follows AP style, the automated standard-checking may prove invaluable.

However, if your organization deviates at all from AP style, you may be annoyed by the fact that you can’t customize the software to allow those deviations.

I discussed the pros and cons of StyleGuard in “AP StyleGuard: the answer to your proofreading prayers?” I’ve been renewing it because I have two client companies that follow AP style. I would probably drop StyleGuard before I drop PerfectIt.

I use the Microsoft Word add-in version of StyleGuard, but you can also get a version that will work in Microsoft Outlook.

What software tools work for YOU?

What’s your experience with software that helps you proofread? Are there other tools that you recommend? I’m always interested to learn from you.

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

Another reason to proofread: Broker example

When your letters include typos, you confuse your readers and undercut your image as a professional. One of my Weekly Tip readers shared the following story about some terrible typos. I’d like to credit him, but he told me that he “must remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media.”

Can you guess the words that the letter’s author was trying to write?

I recall my first sales manager calling a meeting to address a new broker trainee’s remarkable letter to a prospective client. The correspondence highlighted the firm’s extraordinary capabilities in the stick, sock, and bind markets, at various points in the letter.

It was a real letter submitted to a manager for compliance review in a branch out in the hinterlands, and had been photocopied so many times it was almost blurry. Apparently, it was an effective tool for getting the point across to new hires, used by many a manager in the branch system.

 

 

If you have a great communications story you’d like to share, please send it along or share in the Comments below.

Image courtesy of Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Things to Stop Doing in 2016

To improve your communications in 2016, I propose five things you should stop doing. If you’re making New Year’s resolutions, consider some of the items on my list to improve your relationships with clients, prospects, and referral sources.

1. Sending emails with missing or poorly written subject lines

For starters, never send an email with an empty subject line. People like me often delete those emails, assuming they’re spam. Another subject line “don’t”: keeping the same subject line even after the topic has changed.

If you’re writing to request an action, put that action in your subject line.

If your email is simply an FYI, say that in your subject line.

Whatever the purpose of your email, communicate that in your subject line.

For more on emails, see “Top four email mistakes to avoid when you’ve got a referral” and “4 reasons your emails don’t get results.”

2. Publishing or sending any written communication without proofreading at least once.

Example of typo that I'd like to eliminate as part of my New Year's resolutions

Sigh. I missed this typo.

Mistakes, especially stupid mistakes, make people wonder about your intelligence and attention to details.

Even writer geeks make mistakes. I am the poster child for that. I was so excited about finding a Strunk and White grammar rap video, that I posted it to my blog without proofreading my post. Oops! An obvious typo sneaked in.

3. Not blogging because you think your writing isn’t good enough

If you have a valid reason to blog, you can find a way to make it work. Keep your blog posts short. Use audio or video, if you’re more comfortable in those media. You can improve your blog post writing skills with my financial blogging class.

4. Avoiding social media

Social media isn’t going away. Dip your toes in the water. Get on LinkedIn and connect with as many people as possible, even if your Compliance Department limits your activity. You may be surprised by what you discover. Already on LinkedIn? Check out Twitter. Here’s how I built my Twitter following, which currently consists of more than 11,000 followers.

5. Ignoring your most common writing mistakes

You have lots of company if you’re making “Bloggers’ top two punctuation mistakes.” If you’ve moved beyond those mistakes, you may benefit from my favorite online resources for grammar, punctuation, and word usage help.

Thank you, Dorie Clark for inspiring this post!

Clark’s “5 Things You Should Stop Doing in 2012” is a good read. What are your New Year’s resolutions related to writing and communications?

This blog post was edited on June 11, 2012 to correct a typo and in Dec. 2015 to update the post, which was originally published in 2012, for 2016.
Image courtesy of Prakairoj/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading

If you ever tried to proofread the gazillionth draft of an article, you know it’s painful to re-read a familiar piece. Plus, you naturally fill in missing words and correct other mistakes in your mind, not on the page. Adobe Acrobat is helping me overcome this challenge. (NOTE: now I use Speak in Microsoft Word for this purpose.)

The software’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. By the way, recent versions of Microsoft Word have a text-to-speech feature that can also read out loud.

You may be thinking, “But I don’t compose articles in PDF format!” Neither do I. However, I can quickly convert a Microsoft Word Document into a PDF format, so Pro can read it out loud.

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.

What do you think? Could this technique help you?

For more ideas about proofreading, see “6 ways to stop sending emails with errors,” “What professional writers know,” and “Your spell-checker doesn’t work, so you must proofread.”

 

Note: I updated this article on Jan. 18, 2015, after learning that Adobe Acrobat Reader offers the Read Out Loud feature and on August 12, 2016, to reflect Microsoft Word’s text-to-speech feature.