Tag Archive for: writing tips

7 factors that affect reading ease

On this blog—and in my writing workshops—I’ve written about things that affect reading ease. I’ve focused on the average number of syllables per word, words per sentence, and sentences per paragraph. However, Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, introduced me to a seven-factor list from Robert Gunning, creator of the fog index.

Factors that affect reading ease

Some of the seven factors relate to length. They’re similar to the syllable, sentence, and paragraph measures. They also feed into the fog index. Evans describes the fog index as follows:

If you want to be clear, count the average number of words in your sentences, count the number of words of three syllables (the percentage of hard words), total the two, and multiply by 0.4. The lower ranking on the fog index, the easier the reading…

The seven factors include:

  1. Average sentence length in words
  2. Percentage of simple sentences
  3. Percentage of strong verb forms
  4. Proportion of familiar words
  5. Proportion of abstract words
  6. Percentage of personal references
  7. Percentage of long words

Why do the other factors matter? I like #3, the percentage of strong verbs, and #4, the proportion of familiar words, because they typically make the writer’s intent easier to grasp.

I’m puzzled by #6, percentage of personal references.

As I see it, personal references could cut both ways. Requiring detailed knowledge of your personal life will make your writing harder to understand. On the other hand, comprehension will improve when you use “you” and referring to things your readers care about.

The fog index isn’t infallible

Gunning’s seven factors can help you assess your content’s reader-friendliness. But they’re not infallible.

As Evans says,

Combine readability statistics with common sense. You can write illogical nonsense and get a good score of readability; the classic proof is that if you enter your sample from the last word to the first, you get the same score. Metaphor, analogy, and satire are unrecognized, wit unappreciated. The formulas have tin ears for the rhythm of sentence variety, for word choice, for the energy in the writing.

Test your reading ease online

You can run your text through an online version of the fog index.


Disclosure:  If you click on an 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.

Note: Updated March 24, 2024.

Q&A format for articles: Good or bad?

The Q&A format has its uses. An FAQ section covering frequently asked questions belongs on many websites. However, this format should be used sparingly for articles.

Q&A format for articles good or bad infographic


FAQs work, so why not Q&A articles?

Unlike articles, FAQs are meant to be searched or skimmed for one question, not read word-for-word. Their readers seek answers to specific questions or solutions for problems, such as “How can I fix it when I get Error Message XYZ?” An FAQ may include many questions, but the reader is interested in one—or only a few—Q&A pairs.

Q&As make it hard to grasp an overall message

The Q&A format makes it harder for readers to grasp your overall message than with an article. A traditional article can offer an introduction, headings, and a skilled writer’s transition between topics.

Q&A interviewees may hold you hostage

The Q&A format works best when your interviewees know how to hit your readers’ hot buttons, and they’re articulate. You can’t count on finding that in every interviewee.

When you choose a Q&A format, you deny yourself the use of paraphrasing. As a reporter, I learned that only lazy reporters always use direct quotes. Paraphrases, which restate what your source said, can be more economical and effective. Plus, a colorful quote stands out better against a background of plain vanilla text.

Q&A format is okay when…

A Q&A format works well when you:

  1. Write FAQs
  2. Keep it short—My gut tells me three questions is a good length. A Q&A may work well as a blog post. I often discuss reader questions on my blog.
  3. Interview a famous person whose fans care about every word he or she utters—Think Taylor Swift and young girls or Warren Buffett and investors.
  4. Add headings—They’ll make it easier for the casual reader to find information that interests them.
  5. Edit the interview transcript—Word-for-word transcripts don’t make anyone look good. At a minimum, cut out the ums, uhs, incomplete sentences that don’t work, and irrelevant material. If you’re interviewing a corporate employee for your company’s newsletter, you can take more liberties, as long as you check with the employee to make sure you haven’t misrepresented him or her.

What do YOU think?

I’m curious to learn what you think about the pros and cons of the Q&A format. If you’ve used it effectively, feel free to share a link.


NOTE: Originally published April 9, 2013. Updated Jan. 14, 2024.

Top posts from 2021’s third quarter

Check out my top posts from the third quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on writing (#1 & #4), grammar (#2), investment commentary (#3), and proofreading (#5).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2021’s first quarter:

    1. Improve your financial writing with these rules
    2. No apostrophes in plurals!—This drew some strong reactions from others who are tired of seeing apostrophes in plurals
    3. 5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary
    4. Writing tip: Why are you telling me this?
    5. MISTAKE MONDAY for July 26: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Improve your financial writing with these rules

Sometimes I find inspiration for my writing in unusual places. Most recently, it appeared in a newsletter from a professional organizer. Lorena Prime’s “7 Golden Rules of Organizing” made me think about how you can improve your financial writing skills.

rules from a professional organizer infographic

Rule 1. Be open to change

It’s not easy to change your financial writing style after putting your words together in the same way for many years.

However, the rules that you learned in school may no longer apply. For example, I learned in typing class to put two spaces after every period. Today, one space is the standard practice, as explained in Farhad Manjoo’s “Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.” Similarly, today a much more personal, casual style of writing prevails than when I entered the business world. For example, when I rewrote my website in 2015, I changed my biography from using “Susan Weiner” to “I.”

Also, there are always new areas where you can learn things. I try to take at least one writing-related class every year. I also read extensively and ask questions of the experts around me.

You’re a smart person who can learn. Take advantage of your curiosity and intelligence to try new approaches to your financial writing.

Rule 2. Purge

One of the biggest curses of financial writing is wordiness. Purge those excess words from your writing.

While you’re at it, replace multisyllabic jargon with simpler words that count as plain English. I mentioned one tool for identifying text that needs purging in my post on “Donald Trump, grade level, and your financial writing.”

Rule 3. Put like things together

Keep like with like, as I keep my sweaters together in one drawer

Keep like with like, as I keep my sweaters together in one drawer

Financial writing that’s well organized is easier to read than writing that hops from one topic to another and then goes back and forth again.

Divide whatever you write—especially longer pieces, such as white papers or quarterly letters—into distinct sections that each discuss one topic.

I describe an example of how to do this in “Key lesson for investment commentary writers from my professional organizer.”

Not sure if you’ve succeeded in putting like things together? You can outline or diagram the topics covered in each paragraph to check. The color coding used in Roy Peter Clark’s margin analysis technique may help.

Rule 4. Create homes

Your ideas for articles, blog posts, and longer pieces deserve homes. Creating a place where you store your ideas (and the data to support them) will help you to find them when you need them. There’s nothing worse than sitting down at your keyboard with no idea of what you want to write about.

You can house your ideas in a way that suits your style. Some people write notes by hand and cram paper copies of relevant articles into manila folders. Others have embraced virtual repositories, such as word-processing documents, Evernote folders, or online mind maps. I store my blog post ideas as Microsoft Outlook tasks.

Rule 5. Do it if it takes 2 or 3 minutes

I’m stretching to apply this rule to your financial writing. However, I’d like you take advantage of even small time slots to work on your writing.

For example, if you’re struggling to write a blog post, commit to spending 15 minutes on it. What you write doesn’t have to be great. It’ll get your mind thinking. You may develop momentum and keep going after your 15 minutes end. Even if you stop after 15 minutes, the ideas will continue marinating in your head.

Only have two or three minutes? Brainstorm ideas for future topics. Try my Barbie-inspired technique if you’re out of ideas.

Rule 6. Maintain it

You must write to improve your financial writing skills. Write regularly—daily, if possible.

Rule 7. Work with someone

I’m a big believer in classes—and getting feedback from others—as a way to improve one’s writer. Even non-financial writing classes can make you more aware of your writing’s strengths and areas where you need to improve. I took many writing classes through adult education programs while I was learning to write better. None of the classes had anything to do with investments or other financial topics.

If you’d like to focus on financial writing, I offer coaching and my financial blogging class, “How to Write Blog Posts People Will Read: A 5-Week Writing Class for Financial Advisors.” I also lead writing workshops on email and investment commentary for professional societies and corporate clients.


How are YOU working to improve your financial writing?

I’m always interested in learning from you. Tell me how you’re improving your financial writing.

By the way, if you need a professional organizer to help you get your office in shape, I recommend Lorena Prime, whose article sparked this post. She is a woman of many talents. She has also acted as facilitator for my annual investment commentary webinar.

Paper image courtesy of adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing tip: Kill the ST words!

Looking for an easy tweak to simplify your firm’s writing? If your audience is American, stop using three prepositions: “amidst,” “amongst,” and “whilst.” Substitute “amid,” “among,” and while.”

Why bother making such a small change?

It will speed your reader’s progress through your writing. These words ending in -st are viewed as archaic in American English, says Bryan Garner in Garner’s American English. Amongst, for example, “is pretentious at best,” writes Garner.

Don’t distract your readers with archaic or pretentious words. However, if you’re writing for a British audience, consult a British style guide (you can find some listed in “7 British English Writing Resources.” Don’t push American style on your British readers, unless that style is part of your appeal.

NOTE: This post was originally published in November 2015. It has been updated and republished because it’s still relevant.

Top posts from 2020’s fourth quarter

Check out my top posts from the fourth quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on writing (#1, #2, #5), reading suggestions (#3), and spelling (#4).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2020’s fourth quarter:

        1. 8 ways to cut word count and boost your impact!—These practical tips will make your writing more effective.
        2. Increase the sonic force of your writing
        3. My 2020 reading, with suggestions for you
        4. Mistake Monday for November 30: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?
        5. Writing tight with Trish Hall

Pick your corner as a writer!

William Zinsser, a revered writing expert, said the following in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction:

Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

This advice is especially important if you’re writing something short, such as a blog post.

However, this advice also applies to longer projects, such as white papers. Picking a corner will help you focus on a narrower set of readers. The more specific and focused you are on solving the problems of your target readers, the better those readers will react. That’s because they’ll feel that you understand their problems and you’re helping them. That’s powerful.

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.

The image in the upper left is courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tips for writing book reviews

I often edit book reviews for the monthly magazine I edit for an audience of financial advisors. As a result, I’ve been thinking about what separates the best book reviews from the serviceable book reviews.

1. Don’t forget the essentials

Your readers will seek a brief overview of the book. You don’t need to regurgitate the table of contents. In many cases, a line or two will suffice.

Also, give the names of the author(s), the book, and the publisher. That’s all information your readers will need if they want to buy the book. Your readers may also appreciate the book’s list price so they know if it’s in their budgets, and a link for buying it.

When I send my contributors a template for their reviews, it includes a fill-in-the-blanks sentence with the information I want. I italicize [Book Title] because that’s the magazine’s style for book titles.

[Book Title] is published by [publisher] at a list price of $___. It is also available as an e-book.


2. Why is this book worth reading—or not?

Sometimes a book is worth considering because of reasons like the following:

  • The author is a respected expert or has a strong background in the topic
  • The book covers a hot topic
  • The book promises a solution to a pressing problem
  • Other people have said great things about the book


While the factors above make it worthwhile for someone to read and evaluate, the actual book may not live up to its promise. For me as a reader, the value of a nonfiction book depends on:

  • Does it solve a problem for me?
  • Does the book deliver what it promised?
  • Is it written well enough that it’s not painful to read?

Your approach to your review may vary according to your background and the audience for your review.

For example, if you’re a financial advisor reviewing a book for a magazine aimed at financial advisors, then look at the book through the eyes of a financial advisor. This means that a book that’s great at educating individual investors on using educational savings accounts may not teach advisors anything new. On the other hand, advisors may benefit from recommending the book to their clients.

Similarly, a technical book on trusts or taxes might bore individuals, but become an invaluable reference for advisors. One of the valuable things you can do as a reviewer is to identify the audience for which a book is best suited.

Provide specific examples of what makes the book worthwhile. This means that you don’t simply say, “This book provides great ideas for turning spendthrifts into savers,” although that’s a great start. Give an example of a specific idea, and why or how it works.

Other potential topics could include the following, some of which I drew from “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Review” from Lesley Ann McDaniel’s blog and “Book Reviews” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

  • What did you like most (or least) about this book?
  • What would you have done differently in tackling the topic?
  • Are there other books that cover this topic better?
  • Did the author’s argument persuade you?


3. Use quotations, if appropriate

Sometimes a good quotation from a book can drive home the point you want to make. But choose carefully. Rather than quote a clunky sentence, consider paraphrasing.

4. Bring in personal experience

If you’re a financial advisor writing for an audience of financial advisors, readers will be interested to learn your personal perspective. For example, you might say something like “the next time I face this [specific problem], I’m going to experiment with author’s suggestion to …”

On a similar note, you could say something like, “As a financial advisor, I wish the author had said more about …, but clearly that’s out of his scope as a writer for a general audience.” Or, “I’ve tried the technique the authors suggest, but until I read their book, I didn’t realize what I was doing wrong.” That bit of vulnerability lends authenticity to your review.

Of course, make it clear whether you recommend the book to your readers.

5. Be critical, but not unkind

Of course, sometimes a book doesn’t live up to its promise. You don’t have to praise a book that doesn’t deserve it.

On the other hand, don’t be mean. When I was learning how to critique my writing students’ work, I was told to “criticize the writing, not the person.” That’s great advice in any setting.

Another resource

I like the suggestions in “How to Write a Compelling Book Review” on the Oxford University Press’ blog. One of the tips that stood out for me was “Summary, however it is handled, should be combined with your evaluation of the book.” You’re writing a book review, not the kind of unopinionated book report that I had to write back in middle school.


The image in the upper left corner has this attribution: Review by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 ImageCreator

Write better sentences with Joe Moran

Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence. suggests an exercise to help you learn to write better sentences.

Try this exercise

Learn from the artistry of others when you try this exercise described by Moran.

Find a sentence you like and look at it for a distressingly long time, until you start to see past its sense into its shape. As with a painting, the trick is not to exhume some buried symbolism or esoteric meaning, but only to make time to look. Take the sentence apart and reverse-engineer it, the way computer programmers do when they dismantle software to see if they can copy it without infringing the rights. Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences. Learn to love the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.

My analysis

I’m not a good literary analyst. I often felt like the “weak link” in the writers group that helped me give birth to Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. However, I’ll share my analysis to keep you from feeling intimidated by the exercise.

Moran’s paragraph is striking for its use of metaphors. I especially like “Turn its shape into a dough-cutter for your own sentences.” That’s a nice short sentence—and I love short sentences.

However, my love of short sentences suggests that perhaps I should look at Moran’s work for how to use long sentences gracefully. The last sentence of his paragraph has 24 words, yet it flows easily. That may be partly because the sentence is not a mishmash of dependent clauses. I can read about each of the loves—”the feel of sentences, the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop”—without worrying about which other part of the sentence they relate to. It also uses some unusual word combinations. How often have you thought about the “feel” of a sentence? “The wholesome little snap of the full stop” made me smile.

Try it, you may like it

The next time you see a sentence that you like, pause. Copy it for later analysis, or, if you have the time, analyze it on the spot.

If you learn something from this exercise, I’d love to hear about it.

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.

Top posts from 2020’s second quarter

Check out my top posts from the second quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on marketing (#1), writing (#2, #3, #5) and punctuation (#4).

  1. Ready-to-use content for financial advisors—Everyone wishes for marketing shortcuts. If you don’t have time to write your own content, you may consider using content written by others. It’s not ideal. But it’s better than nothing, especially if you can tailor the content to your clients and your firm.
  2. What “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” taught me about writing—This is a guest post by writer Anne Brennan.
  3. Stilettos in the gym—Believe it or not, this is a writing tip inspired by what I saw at my gym. As you might guess, I wrote this piece before the pandemic. I haven’t been to the gym in months.
  4. Mistake Monday for April 27: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?—You can test your proofreading skills on the last Monday of every month.
  5. Read critically or write badly