Tag Archive for: writing tips

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


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]