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My financial writing crusade

“Are you on a crusade?” A reader asked me that question with a smile after he read the Barron’s article that quoted me on the need for financial writers to lower the grade level of their writing.Chronique d'Ernoul et de Bernard le Trésorier - caption: 'Crusaders besieging Damascus'

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll probably say the answer is “Yes, I am on a financial writing crusade.” After all, I often urge people to improve their financial writing. Plus, I put the term in the title of this post, picking up on the wording of my reader’s question.

However, I prefer to think of myself as an advocate for good writing. The word “crusade” has overtones of intolerance and single-mindedness. I don’t want to demean people who are doing their best to communicate. Indeed, sometimes poor writing can be good enough for the situation. Think, for example, about a condolence card. The sincere expression of sympathy is more important than the worst misspellings and awkward wording.

Still, good financial writing beats bad financial writing. It’s important because good financial writing helps people to understand the world of earning, spending, saving, and investing. It might even make the difference between an individual sleeping peacefully instead of tossing and turning at night, due to worries over an investment. It might prevent litigation when risks are clearly disclosed by a disclosure document. On a less dramatic note, it might help institutional investors to choose the strategy that’s right for their unique circumstances.

Here’s what I believe about good financial writing.

Everyone can learn to write better

Good writers are made, not born. You’ll benefit from having other people read and edit your work. Classes, reading and analyzing other people’s work, and using software tools also help.

I think of myself as a good writer, but I still have room for improvement. I continue to read and get feedback from others to enhance my writing.

I’ve come a long way. I mention this to make you realize that you also can improve. As I said in an earlier post, “I wince when I read selections from my Ph.D. thesis, Bureaucracy and Politics in the 1930s: The Career of Goto Fumio.” It’s full of the kind of writing that I warn people against today. My path to improvement involved taking many writing classes, participating in writing groups, and being edited by savvy editors.

I’ve been thrilled to see some of the hard-working students in my financial blogging class make big improvements in their writing. Even small improvements can help. For example, if your sentences average 32 words in length, cutting the average length to 22 words will boost your readability.

You’ll benefit from becoming aware of your writing grade level

To improve your writing, you need to learn your weaknesses. One of the biggest weaknesses of much financial writing is that it’s too long-winded. The authors use too many multisyllabic words in long, convoluted sentences that pile one upon another in impenetrable paragraphs.

To get an idea of how you rate in terms of long-windedness, look at your grade level, which I discussed in “Donald Trump, grade level, and your financial writing” and “Free help for wordy writers!” Grade level calculations reflect the average length of your words and sentences.

However, don’t use grade level as the only measure of your work’s quality. Sometimes longer sentences are clearer than short sentences.

Different grade levels and vocabulary work for different audiences

The grade level and vocabulary that you can get away with depends on your audience.

Imagine that you’re a fixed-income strategist writing to your team about a change in your strategy. Using technical terms such as “duration” and “convexity” is perfect for your audience of investment professionals. These concisely convey your meaning in an exchange between professionals. You can also get away with writing long because your readers, as your employees, are highly motivated to read what you write. If they don’t grasp it, they can’t do their jobs.

Now, imagine that you need to communicate the strategy to an audience of unsophisticated individual investors. If you don’t delete the technical terms—or explain them in plain language—you’ll lose your readers. They won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Plus, they may not care about the fine points of your strategy. Unlike your professional colleagues, they’re not motivated to stick with you.

In general, I believe institutional investors and other financial professionals crave more details than the individuals in your audience. Still, they’ll appreciate it when you streamline your writing, even when they  approve of your using technical terms. Better writing benefits everybody.

Learning how to organize your thoughts before you write will help

Many professionals struggle to write. It takes them a long time to draft and edit their writing.

I’d like you to suffer less through the writing process. Organizing your thoughts before you write will help. One of the inspirations for my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, was my desire to describe a step-by-step process for writing that includes organizing your thoughts before you write.

When you know what you want to say and you organize your thoughts before you write, you’ll write faster and more clearly. When you use a repeatable process tailored to your needs, your stress declines even more. This is part of what I teach in my financial blogging class.

Don’t let legal and compliance feedback ruin your writing

I know some great people who work in the legal and compliance areas for registered investment advisors, registered representatives, and other financial organizations. However, as one of my old bosses told me, “Legal never gets in trouble for saying ‘No.’ ”

Learn enough about legal and compliance requirements so you can push back when necessary. Sometimes your legal or compliance experts make changes that are a matter of their style preferences—not legal or regulatory requirements. In addition, the jargon used by some legal and compliance experts can inspire the confusion and litigation that they’re trying to avoid, as I discussed in “Ammo for your plain-language battle with compliance.”

People who write badly aren’t bad or stupid people

There’s no need to shame people who write badly. They aren’t bad people. Nor are they stupid. They simply haven’t been educated yet. Or perhaps they don’t have an aptitude for writing. We all have different strengths.

If you follow me on social media, you have seen my Mistake Monday posts, in which I invite readers to test their proofreading skills by finding typos and other errors in writing samples. I don’t call those people stupid. I can’t. That’s because I’ve posted many of my own errors on Mistake Monday.

It’s hard for us to catch our own errors. If you want to catch more of your errors, here’s one of my best proofreading tips.

Let’s show compassion to the people who don’t write as well as we do.

What do you believe about good writing?

I’d like to hear from you. Tell me what you believe about good financial writing.

Image courtesy of The British Library/flickr

Looks matter when you present numbers, says “Painting with Numbers” author

Painting with Numbers by Randall BoltenNumbers are critical when financial professionals communicate with the clients and colleagues. However, poorly crafted communications with numbers can sabotage you. Randall Bolten’s Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You will improve your effectiveness.

I was particularly taken with Bolten’s chapter called “Looks Matter.”

As Bolten says, your use of white space, font styles, and other visual cues can make a big difference in readers’ understanding. These cues tell your readers “how they should group your information and what’s not important, and where you want them to focus first.”

Here are some chart and spreadsheet tips from Bolten’s “Looks Matter” chapter.

Tip 1: “Put the important numbers where they’re easy for the reader to find, which is usually around the edges.” Think about it. The eye will seek the “bottom line” when looking at financial statements.

Tip 2: Use white space to set off the main elements. This could mean setting off groups of rows, such as revenues or cost of sales. It might also mean breaking 12 months of data into clusters of three months.

Tip 3: Show time periods across the top of the report. This takes advantage of the English-speaking world’s habit of reading from left to right. Plus, the numbers in an income statement then fall into a mathematically logical order of revenues, expenses, and profits.

Tip 4: Use font and cell formatting choices wisely. This means highlighting the most important numbers using boldface, colored or italicized text, borders or cell shading. Don’t go overboard with special effects. As Bolten says, “Not only is an overdressed report hard to understand, but the impact of the visual effects that do have a valid purpose becomes diluted because the reader can’t tell which effects are meaningful and which aren’t.”

 Useful book for numbers people

I’m more of a word person than a numbers person. If I ever had to dig more deeply into spreadsheets, I’d study Bolten’s book closely for its tips on designing and using Microsoft Excel to create reader-friendly output. Bolten’s philosophy of “painting with numbers” lines up nicely with my approach to working with words.

Disclosures: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Winston Churchill’s lesson for speakers and writers

Winston Churchill was an outstanding speaker. Here’s what he said about his preparation.

If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.

—Winston Churchill

The bottom line? To speak concisely requires more preparation than rambling. The same is true for writing that packs a punch in a small space.

I’d like to acknowledge Terri Sjodin’s Small Message, Big Impact: The Elevator Speech Effect for drawing this quote to my attention.

Image courtesy of the British Government / Wikimedia Commons

Finding your article’s focus with Roy Peter Clark

Identifying their focus is one of the biggest challenges for many of my blogging class students. I try to help them by asking “What problem do you solve for your readers?” I found additional helpful techniques in the “I don’t know what my story is really about” chapter of Roy Peter Clark’s Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. I discuss some of them in this post.

1. “Write a six-word theme statement.”

If your idea requires more than six words, it may be too big. A six-word theme may still be too broad. For example, consider “More women than men reach ninety,” one of Clark’s sample themes. However, at least it provides a starting point.

My theme for this blog post is “Tips to focus your articles.”

There are two ways to use your theme. First, as inspiration for your article. Write to explain your theme.

Second, use it to narrow your article. Pare away anything that doesn’t relate to your theme.

2. “Cut the elements least supportive of your focus.”

Use your best material and lose the rest. As Clark says,

Not all evidence is equal. If you can identify the weakest evidence, what is left—your strongest stuff—can support a sharp focus.

The saying “less is more” often applies to articles, blog posts, and more. By deleting flabby evidence, you sharpen your main focus.

Clark lists eight characteristics that make evidence weak. Two of them often apply to financial pieces.

  1. “It will appear in the story only because of your interest in it.”
  2. “It is impossible to write it clearly and quickly for a general audience.”
The next time you read a poorly written post, ask yourself if it suffers from #1 or #2.
……  

3. Use the funnel

Putting your ideas through a metaphorical funnel may also help. As Clark suggests on his book’s back cover:

See your work in the form of a funnel. You pour everything in at the top, but as the funnel narrows, you must become more selective, reaching a point where you can leave things out with confidence.

Alternatively, think of yourself as a sculptor with a block of marble. Only by cutting away stone can you reveal your masterpiece.

How do YOU find your focus?

There are many ways to identify the focus of an article, blog post, or other written communication. What’s your favorite technique?

 

 

Keep it short, but mix it up

Short sentences are easier to read. But many of us learned to write long sentences in what Natalie Canavor, author of Business Writing in the Digital Age, calls “pre-20th century writing.” The best writing mixes sentence lengths for variety, rhythm, and better comprehension.

Modern and historical sentence lengths

Canavor lists the following sentence lengths in her book:

  • 7-10 words for spoken sentences
  • 14-22 words, on average, for the most understandable written sentences
  • 23 words in the late 19th century
  • 29 words in Victorian times
  • 45 words in Elizabethan times
  • 50 words in pre-Elizabethan times

Sentences are getting shorter. As they shrink, so does readers’ patience with long-winded writing.

Variety is good, too

Short is good, but line after line of short sentences may bore your readers.

I agree with Canavor’s advice to keep your sentences short on average. In an example she cites in her book, the sentence length of several paragraphs averages 17.9 words. However, “one sentence is 41 words long and a few are less than 10 words.” This can work if the long sentence is properly crafted.

Test your writing

How long do YOUR sentences run? Take something you’ve written recently and calculate the average sentence length. It’s easy to do in Microsoft Word using its readability statistics. Other word-processing software offers similar capabilities.

By the way, the average sentence length in this blog post is 11.5 words.

Good book for novice business writers

I like Business Writing in the Digital Age as a resource for novice business writers. It has lots of practical tips, examples, and writing exercises.

Margin analysis to improve your writing

Like belongs with like in your writing, as I discussed in “Key lesson for investment commentary writers from my professional organizer.” In Help! for Writers, Roy Peter Clark suggests a way that you can analyze and then reorganize your drafts so that your information goes in the right places.

Step 1: Print and write in margins

Print your draft on paper and then list in the margin the main topics of each paragraph. This helps you to get some distance from your draft so you can analyze it.

Step 2: List most important topics

On a separate piece of paper, list your draft’s most important topics. Assign each topic a color. Use colors of markers that you have handy or of highlighter colors in your word-processing program.

Next, color each section or paragraph according to its topic. If you see one color scattered throughout your draft, you can assess whether to leave it that way or, as Clark says, “bring those elements together in a single coherent passage.”

If you try this technique, I’d like to hear from you about how it works for you.

 

Note: On July 2, I added a clarifying phrase to this post.

Simplify and clarify to write better

how to not write bad ben yagoda“The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying,” wrote Ben Yagoda in “In Writing, First Do No Harm.” Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and How to Avoid Them.

Here are some steps you can take to apply Yagoda’s advice to your writing:

  1. Use the first-sentence check method to make sure your article flows logically.
  2. Ask yourself if every sentence of every paragraph supports the paragraph’s topic sentence.
  3. Shorten your sentences.
  4. Delete excess words.
  5. Replace jargon with plain English.
  6. Test your writing on a member of your target audience.

 

Maintain your draft’s momentum with these tips

If you’re too busy to complete a draft in one sitting, these tips can help.

When you return to a partly written draft, you may feel as if you’re starting from scratch again. You have lost your momentum because you have no idea what comes next. You can beat this “blank page” feeling by leaving yourself some hints for your next words.

Here are some techniques you can use:

1. Stop after you write the first sentence of your next paragraph. If it is an effective topic sentence, the rest of the paragraph should flow easily.

2. Jot down bullet points outlining what you’ll write after you return. It’s easier to turn bullets into sentences than to pull ideas out of your head in an organized manner.

3. Pull out your mind map, outline, or other notes. If you organized your ideas in writing before you started your draft, you can pull out your notes to ease you back into your draft. For me, this usually means looking at a hand-drawn mind map. You might prefer an outline or some other form of reminder.

YOUR tips?

I’m sure some of you have discovered other tips that make it easy to dive into your incomplete drafts. Please share.

Image courtesy of Zuzzuillo / FreeDigitalPhotos.net