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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

 

4 great tips for writing sentences

Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence has some great sentences about sentences.

Here’s a sampling of them, sorted by the lesson they suggest.

4 tips for writing good sentences

1. Slow down

Moran writes:

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.

What a great analogy with farming!

I don’t recommend pausing after every sentence. After all, too many people struggle to complete a first draft. But, at some point, you should pause to review what you have written. Don’t hesitate to throw it out and start over if it doesn’t work. Your second draft is bound to benefit from the ideas “marinating” in your head.

2. Don’t tax your reader’s memory

“A sentence must stick in the mind. It has to be literally memorable, never so intricate that it cannot be absorbed all at once,” says Moran.

He also says:

The limit of a spoken sentence is the breath capacity of our lungs. The limit of a written one is the memory capacity of our brains. The full stop at the end of a sentence sets the limit. By the time it arrives, you must still be able to recall the sentence’s beginning. If you can’t keep it all in your head, then maybe those words weren’t meant to be together.

“Maybe those words weren’t meant to be together” agrees with my assessment of many complex, long sentences that I read in the fields of investment and wealth management.

I like using the idea of “memory capacity” to explain why many long sentences don’t work. I think that some of my clients might understand that better than my babbling about “too many dependent clauses.”

Complex sentences and paragraphs are also a problem when key information is unintentionally omitted. As Moran says, “A readers should not be asked to do the equivalent of lining up all the screws and dowels and puzzling over the instructions, only to find that the Allen key is missing.” Ooh, there’s another analogy that makes me smile.

3. Give gifts

Moran says that writing should be “an act of generosity, a gift from writer to reader.” So, follow the rules of good gift giving. For starters, “the gift should never feel like more trouble than it is worth.” Moreover, “the gift of knowledge that a sentence brings should never have to be bought, as it often is, with the reader’s boredom or confusion.”

Despite Moran’s suggestions, confusion abounds in many examples of financial writing. That’s no gift.

4. Move up and down the ladder

Moran uses S.I. Hayakawa’s idea of a ladder of abstraction. Concrete nouns like “chair” and “wall” are on the lowest rung. Abstract nouns—nouns like “truth” or “knowledge”—are on the top rung.

Moran says:

Writing stuck on one rung of the ladder of abstraction is too monotone. Arguments that use only abstract nouns, like truth and power and knowledge, are hard to care about because writing that sidesteps the senses is dull. Sentimental or pious writing also leans on abstractions, replacing difficult feelings with consoling simplifications. When words are too general, they paint inadequate pictures. But writing that describes only the feelable things in front of our faces is also dull, because it does not say why those things should matter to someone else. Writing stuck on the ladder’s middle rungs is worst of all, because here sit words with an illusory concreteness. Keep shinning up and down the ladder, though, and the reader gets the gist in different ways. She grasps big ideas through concrete things, and concrete things through big ideas. The tangible ignites the elusive and both of them shine brighter.

Moran himself seems to have a flair for “shinning up and down the ladder.”

 

I had to return this book to the library before finishing it. I’m definitely re-reserving it. It’s worth reading all the way through.

 

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.

One idea to a sentence

“One idea to a sentence” is the title of a section in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. It’s also a darned good idea for financial writers.

Bernstein advises this approach for “those kinds of writing in which instant clarity and swift reading, which are other ways of saying quick comprehension, are dominant desiderata.”

Research favors shorter average sentence length

Bernstein cites research showing that articles with a shorter average sentence length are more easily understood.

He explains:

…in other words, a few sentences of three or four words offset some rather long sentences and pulled the average down. Still, although there were some rather long sentences, there were no complicated ones.

This analysis led to the one-idea-per-sentence approach. That’s partly because “Confining a sentence to a single thought will usually reduce the number of words.”

If the folks whose work I edit took this approach, I would spend less time breaking long sentences into two or even three sentences. This kind of editing is an easy way to boost readers’ comprehension.

No splinters, please

Of course, I must be careful not to create what Bernstein calls a “splinter.” Sometimes, as Bernstein says, “a writer or an editor ineptly splits a long sentence, then finds himself holding a meaningless splinter like this: ‘The charge came after an assertion by District Attorney Hogan.’ “ This is part of what writing guru Bryan Garner means when he calls for “no brevity without substance.” I think he and Bernstein have similar philosophies about the characteristics of good sentences.

I also tend to favor one idea per blog post. But that’s a topic for another day.

 

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 photo in the upper left has is courtesy of Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha [CC BY-SA]

Down with nouns!

Joe Moran, the author of First You Write a Sentence. hates how people abuse nouns, sometimes abetted by the passive voice.

He says Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann defended himself at the Nuremberg War Trials “With an impenetrable shield of nouns.” For example, “He described his role as ‘emigration specialist.’ The Auschwitz death trains were ‘evacuation transport.’ ”

That’s not just using nouns, it’s using nouns that obscure the true meaning—they’re euphemisms.

Nouns shed responsibility

Moran dislikes noun-heavy writing:

In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. Instead of saying that x is not working (verb and participle), they say there has been a loss of functionality (two nouns) in x. These words are not even trying to illuminate; they are immunizing themselves against the world. The aim, even if unknown to the writer, is to bore the reader into not looking closely at the words. Instead of inviting a response, as writing should, it shuts it down.

Verbs bring writing to life

The solution to “nouny writing” is to “disinter the buried verbs and bring them back to life by reverbing them,” says Moran. He believes in “restoring the proper links between the nouns by adding verbs and prepositions, even if this means using more words.”

Moran sets the bar high, saying that writers should use strong verbs to connect the nouns. That means limiting use of forms of the verb “to be” and of the passive voice.

“The passive voice thwarts our healthy desire to ascribe acts to actors and give events a sense of verbal drive,” Moran says. Ooh, I like the verb “thwart”! One-syllable words tend to be stronger. (Of course, “be” is a big exception.) Still, he sees a use for the passive voice, which is sometimes “more truthful.”

Moran is a big fan of verbs, saying “put them next to other words and they are as life-giving to the sentence as light and air to the world.”

Nouns versus verbs

“Nouns and verbs are the two poles of the sentence. Nouns keep it still; verbs make it move,” says Moran. In the end, “Every sentence has to mix the right blend of nouns and verbs.”

 

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.

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.

5 ways to fight

 

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].

Writers, go back to the beginning

Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to find the end. That’s my takeaway from the following quote, from David L. Carroll’s A Manual of Writer’s Tricks.

When you’re stuck for an ending, go back to your beginning. When stymied for a way to end your piece, go back to the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter, and reread it several times. Since opposites tend to meet in some mysterious way, you will often discover that the ending is somehow logically implied in the beginning and that your very first ideas somehow also contain a logical conclusion.

Use in short documents, too

While Carroll may have been offering advice for book-length manuscripts, I believe his advice applies to documents as short as a blog post, or even an email. In short, you set expectations in the opening of your document. By the end you should have satisfied that expectation.

You probably want to push your reader to think or act in a certain way. That’s often a good place to end your piece of business writing.

Endings

I’m not a big fan of endings that go under the heading of “Conclusion.” You can write a conclusion, but please don’t waste room in your article by calling it that.

At the end of a document, you may need to push your readers to take a step. That step could be something they do on their own. Or, perhaps you conclude with a call to action that has readers contact you.

At any rate, look at how you start your piece, and then look at your ending. Do the beginning and the end seem to belong to the same piece? Then, you’re on the right track.

Thank you, Andy!

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.

How to weight and organize evidence

In a typical financial white paper, you must organize evidence to support your argument. John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style suggests how you can do that.

Step 1. List the evidence

In Trimble’s example, a writer starts by listing all of the evidence. Next, the writer weighs the arguments. This is important because “the shotgun approach—a blast of unconnected reasons—is out of the question,” says Trimble.

Step 2. Categorize

Next, it’s time to organize the arguments by category. “This is a crucial part of the writing process, he knows, for his reader will expect the proof of this is sorted into neat, logically developing stages.” In Trimble’s example, the evidence is divided into moral, economic, political, and legal reasons.

Categorizing is a step that lends itself to mind mapping, a technique that I discuss extensively in Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients. With Trimble’s example, I’d create “branches” for moral, economic, political, and legal reasons around a central circle holding the paper’s topic. That mind map would give me a bird’s eye perspective, which would help me work on Trimble’s next task.

Step 3. Put in the right order

Figuring out the sequence for presenting the arguments is an important related task. This poses questions, says Trimble:

Should the most persuasive ones all come first, or should he build his argument from least persuasive to most persuasive, or should he mix them? Or would he be wiser to eliminate most of the marginally persuasive reasons and go for quality rather than quantity?

Trimble votes for quality over quantity. I agree.

However, he also votes for an “increasingly persuasive order of arguments.” That’s often not the best approach, in my opinion, especially if the arguments are discrete, and don’t build on one another. In that case, you might lose your readers before they reach your best arguments.

My take on the right order

I’d prefer to start with the strongest argument. That helps you to capture your readers’ attention so they’ll stick with you throughout your white paper.

With the evidence in Trimble’s example, I might start with the strongest category and the strongest point within that category, and then move through the weaker points in that category. Then, I’d move on to the second-strongest category.

Of course, starting with the strongest category’s strongest point isn’t always possible. Sometimes that strongest point rests on a weaker point in that category—or in a different category. Such complex relationships are why I enjoy mind mapping to help me visualize the relationships among the points I want to make.

 

Whether or not you agree with every detail of Trimble’s approach, he’s right that you must categorize and weight the evidence to persuade your readers.

 

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 Tony Webster [CC BY-SA 3.0]