Break it up!

William Zinsser, a noted writer on writing, said, as quoted in Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers:

Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read.

I’m a big fan of short paragraphs, as you know if you’ve read about the rule of 42-14-2 in “Does your article pass these writing tests?

Breaking up long blocks of text is almost always a good idea. It’s especially important when you write something for people to read online. People’s attention spans are shorter online than when they are reading printed materials. Also, people who are reading online tend to be scanning for specific information. Shorter paragraphs make it easier for readers to find the information they seek.

When in doubt, break up your long paragraphs into shorter blocks.

Does your article pass these writing tests?

Are you thinking of writing an article or blog post, but feel insecure about your skill as a writer? I’ve developed some tests that can help you attract readers by communicating in a way that’s easy to read. Give your article the tests that I describe below. These writing tests can also help your other communications aimed at clients, prospects, and referral sources.

WIIFM test

How can you cut through the clutter of the gazillion articles competing for your readers’ attention?

When your article appeals to your readers’ WIIFM, you command their attention. WIIFM is short for “What’s In It For Me?” You need to describe how readers will benefit from the content in your article. Ideally, you’ll help them to solve a problem.

It’s best if you introduce your readers’ problem – and your solution – in words that they would use. Drop the jargon unless it’s part of your readers’ daily vocabulary. To help you achieve this, fill in the blanks in the following sentence: “I’m worried about … and you can help me by …”

You pass the WIIFM test when your readers see that you can fill in the blanks in my sentence.

First-sentence check

When your articles are easy to skim, your message will reach more readers than if your articles require careful attention.

To perform the first-sentence check, read your headings and the first sentence of every paragraph in your article. In combination, do they give the reader a good idea of your main points? If so, you’ve written something that’s easy to skim. It’s also more likely to draw in readers interested in your topic.

This first-sentence check works because strong business writing typically starts each paragraph with a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph’s main point or topic. When I’ve done writing workshops, participants tell me this is one of the biggest ideas they’ve picked up.

When an article fails the first-sentence check, it’s time to rearrange your paragraphs, rewrite your topic sentences, or rethink how you approach your topic. For more on this approach, read “Quick check for writers, with an economic commentary example.”

Rule of 42-14-2

Wordy writing is difficult to read. Direct marketers’ research suggest that your readership starts to drop once your articles average more than 42 words per paragraph, 14 words per sentence, or two syllables per word. This is according to research cited in workshops by Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications.

Microsoft Word’s readability statistics will give you an idea of how your writing fares in terms of these statistics. The analytical tool at (discussed in “Free help for wordy writers!“) can also help you identify text that’s too long-winded and give you ideas about how to simplify.

You don’t necessarily have to pare your averages down to 42, 14, and two. But becoming more aware of wordiness, and shortening your sentences and paragraphs, will make your writing more effective.

Too busy to test your writing?

If you’re too busy to test your writing, ask for outside editorial help. Perhaps you have a colleague or a client who can give you feedback. You can also hire an editor.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Em dash versus en dash, oh my!

I love my em dashes. In fact, one of my most exciting discoveries in WordPress was the symbols menu that lets me insert proper em dashes instead of double hyphens into my blog posts. Also, my assistant can tell you that I’m a real nag about inserting the proper coding for em dashes into my Constant Contact newsletters.

However, not everyone agrees with me that em-dashes are the right punctuation symbol for setting off text in a sentence. Some people prefer en-dashes (–) to em-dashes (—). If you wonder why I care about this, stop reading now. This post will put you to sleep.

Social Media – Untitled DesignBeautiful em dashes

If you feel excited about this topic, you won’t be surprised that I took notice when Emmy J. Favilla said in A World Without “Whom, “What’s more beautiful than a strategically placed em dash?”

However, I was appalled to learn that her bosses asked her to put spaces around her em-dashes. No! That seems like sacrilege to me. But BuzzFeed is an online publication so, as Favilla said, “Space isn’t at a premium on the internet.” She has come to believe that “spaces on either side of an em dash allow a sentence to breather.”

What is an em dash, anyhow?

An em dash “is used to mark an interruption in the structure of a sentence,” said Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Garner believes “The em-dash is perhaps the most underused punctuation mark in American writing. Whatever the type of writing, dashes can often clarify a sentence that is clogged up with commas—or even one that’s otherwise lusterless.” Way to go!

In contrast to Garner, Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook suggests that em dashes may be overused. “The dash is best reserved for special effects: to prepare readers for a punchline or a U-turn.”

En dashes aren’t the same as em dashes

Some publications use en dashes instead of em dashes to set off text. In fact, I’m the editor of a monthly magazine that used to do that. It drove me nuts! I eventually implemented a style change, and converted en dashes to em dashes to my backlog of articles.

I wondered why some publications abused en dashes by using them in place of em dashes. The practice appears to have come from the United Kingdom. I can’t find the page where Favilla said that British publications use en dashes instead of em dashes, but I found some evidence online.

According to a University of Sussex web page, “In British usage, we use only a single hyphen to represent a dash – like this. American usage, in contrast, uses two consecutive hyphens –.”

Similarly, according to Grammar and Style in British English, “The single dash is normally a feature of informal English and is used, especially in narrative, to create suspense or to indicate that what follows is an afterthought or something to be emphasised.”

American usage for the en dash is quite different. “It joins pairs or groups of word to show a range, and also indicates movement or tension (rather than cooperation or unity,” according to Garner.

I confess that until recently, I had no clue that there are times when I should use an en dash instead of a plain old hyphen. In fact, it looks strange to me to write a date range as “August 7–8” instead of “August 7-8.” As Favilla said in her book, “Sometimes an em dash-esque…en dash can look awkwardly long in a modifying phrase, leading en dash noobs to wonder what the hell that hyphen just ate for breakfast.” And, in fact, a colleague questioned my use of the en-dash in this situation. However, my AP StyleGuard software told me that was correct.

Still, some of the en dash rules seem obscure to me. I will probably continue to write “Russo-Japanese War” instead of “Russo–Japanese War,” but it’s kind of cool to understand why the en dash is considered more appropriate.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Does the end come before the beginning?

getting-things-as-right-as-you-canI was intrigued by the following tip in Draft No. 4, a book written by John McPhee, a staff writer for The New Yorker.

I settled on an ending before going back to the beginning.

It’s always good to have the ending in mind before you start a draft. That will take you to your destination more efficiently. However, McPhee does some work before he settles on his ending.

What to do when you’re “wallowing” in notes

Earlier in his chapter on “Structure,” he wrote about a time when he was “wallowing” in notes. Rather than plunge into writing, he organized his notes into piles. But he started that process only after generating a lead sentence. On one occasion,

I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence: “The citizen had certain misgivings.”

That process sounds familiar to me. That’s how I organized my notes from my Ph.D. dissertation. I wrote about that in “Index-card approach to writing.” I wish I could say that I, like McPhee, had my ending in mind before I spread my index cards on my floor. However, aside from chronological order, I didn’t have a good idea of where I was going.

Today I’d use mind mapping, which I discuss in Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients to organize my thoughts. When I wrote my financial blogging book, I started with posts written for my blog. I also did a bit of mind mapping to decide on the order of my chapters, though I also tweaked the order based on feedback from my writing group.

Knowing the end makes it easier to edit

When writing something short, like a blog post, it’s much easier to start with the end in mind like McPhee, knowing your destination makes it easier to decide what information to keep. You can prune anything that doesn’t lead to your destination.

The next time you write something, try to figure out its ending before you start writing.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Stinging quotes from “Do I Make Myself Clear?”

Harold Evans wrote some great lines against bad writing in Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. Here are some of them, organized by topic.

If you can avoid making the mistakes he highlights, you can live up to his statement that “Good writers breathe a kiss of life into old dead facts.

I love the term “pussy footing passive,” which you’ll find in the section on the passive voice.

Passive voice

Evans says the passive voice “robs sentences of energy, adds unnecessary participles and prepositions, and leaves questions unanswered…

When you write in the passive voice, you can’t escape adding fat any more than you can escape piling on adipose tissue when you grab a doughnut.

However, Evans admits there are times when the passive voice is necessary. These cases include when the actor isn’t known, when the identity of the receiver of the action isn’t known, when the writer wants to conceal the actor (also known as the pussy footing passive, according to Evans’ citation of Edward Johnson), and when otherwise the verb would follow a long subject.


Express even a negative in positive form…it is quicker and easier to understand what is than what is not.”

For example, say “Bond prices fell” instead of “Bond prices did not rise.”

Emphasize the impact on people

Put people first,” says Evans.

Eyes that glaze over at ‘a domestic accommodation energy-saving program’ will focus on ‘how to qualify for state money for insulating your house.’


The circumlocutory preposition is a fluffy substitute for a single preposition which gives the meaning as clearly. The grossest offenders are in the field of, in connection with, in order to, in respect of, so far as…is concerned.


The people who create and run companies aren’t stupid, but they put their names to statements that are management mumbo-jumbo, products of algorithms rather than thinking human beings.

If you like what Evans says…

I also quote Evans in “Avoid long introductory clauses, or lose readers.”


Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

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.

Financial blog topic: write a letter

A letter can be a great format for your financial blog. Writing a letter can help you tackle difficult topics or get a new perspective on an old topic.

I’m not thinking about the kinds of letter you usually write. I don’t mean prospecting letters, quarterly reports, or requests for documentation.

Instead, I am thinking about letters that tackle topics that you feel strongly about. Sure, you can write about those topics in a regular blog post. However, there’s something about a letter that makes it more personal.

Different letter recipients, different content

Imagine, for example, that you write a letter to one of the following people:

  • Your mom, whom you are grateful to for teaching you the value of saving and investing
  • Your son, who just started his first job with a 401(k) plan
  • Your client who holds no stocks in her retirement plan
  • Ted Benna, father of the 401(k) plan

Each of these letters might discuss retirement. However, your choice of recipient will affect the opinions you express, your tone, and the details you use to make your point.

Letter-writing benefits

The details that you use in a letter—especially a letter to your mom or son—are likely to deepen the reader’s sense of who you are. Are you a person like them? A person they can relate to? Your letter to a client will show if you can empathize, or you’re coldly logical. Your letter to Ted Benna may display your technical expertise.

I think that showing your personality, which I’ve written about in “How to add personality and warmth to your financial writing—part one”  is one of the strengths of a letter.

Another reason to use the letter format is to make your language more reader-friendly. I remember struggling with a topic in my essay-writing class at Radcliffe Seminars many years ago. To end my stilted language, my teacher suggested I write a letter to a classmate, telling her what I wanted to say. He hoped that would pull more conversational language out of me. Visualizing your ultimate reader always helps, as I discussed in “Your mother and the ‘fiscal cliff.’

Have YOU ever written a blog post in the form of a letter? If so, please share a link in the comments.

By the way, this post was inspired by a book, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Letters to Memory, which takes the form of letters to historical figures and other people. It’s a provocative read about Japanese-American history that brings in Greek and Indian mythology and other diverse topics, thanks to her choice of letter recipients.

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7 tips to help you write more and be a better person

Are you looking for tips to help you write or blog more frequently? Some of the tips from the “Work Well” chapter of Kate Hanley’s How to Be a Better Person may help.

1. Mono-task one thing a day

This is one of my favorite tips. Hanley says:

Multitasking is a fact of life and can sometimes be useful, but it’s not always the best choice. When you work on the most important thing on your daily to-do list, invite your best thinking by closing your email program, putting your phone on airplane mode, blocking yourself from social media, and doing one thing. You’ll get it done more effectively and efficiently when you do.

This works well for me. I’ve cranked out many of my blog posts writing on a steno pad on vacation, as I’ve discussed in “No batteries required: My favorite blogging technique.”

2. Make a learning plan

“If you want your career to continue to grow, you need your skills and interests to keep evolving too. Ensure your growth by making a plan to keep learning,” says Hanley.

I offer some learning tips for writers in “Confessions of a lousy writer—and 6 tips for you.” Also, I offer a financial blogging class.

3. Delegate better

You don’t need to prepare every part of your blog post, article, or white paper yourself. Outsource the parts that aren’t the best use of your time.  That’w what I do with the images and tricky formatting of my blog posts.

When you do outsource, don’t micromanage the person who’s doing the work for you. Hanley says to tell the person to “ask for help if the person gets stuck, but otherwise, let them at it. People who are doing something for the first time may make mistakes—focus on appreciating the effort more than the results at first and give positive feedback they can hear.”

4. Take on uncomfortable tasks

Are you scared to write a kind of article or other publication for the first time? Give it it a go.

Hanley says, “Accept your missteps and view them as ways to refine your skills. Growth can be uncomfortable, but so is staying in the same place for too long.”

5. Get better at prioritizing

You can’t do everything. You’ll just drive yourself crazy if you try to do it all.

Hanley says,

Here are some guidelines for setting priorities in a way that helps you focus on the important instead of merely the urgent: Think about the things on your list that make the biggest impact and that mean the most to you—those are your highest priorities. Next come the things that have a big impact, even though you may not love them. For things that don’t move the needle and that you don’t enjoy, either delegate them or bang them out in one concentrated burst.

6. Work smarter, not harder

Identifying your priorities, as suggested in Tip #5, will help you to work smarter instead of harder.

Hanley says,

The eighty/twenty rule—otherwise known as the Pareto principle for the late nineteenth-century economist Vilfredo Pareto who noticed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the people—says that 80 percent of your results comes from 20 percent of your efforts. Spend some time thinking about the simple actions that, when done consistently, result in big strides toward your goals—strengthening relationships with the 20 percent of your clients who generate 80 percent of revenue, for example, or making sure you get ninety minutes (approximately 20 percent of an eight-hour day) of focused time to produce your best work (no meetings or Facebooking allowed). Now make sure you prioritize those needle movers when planning what you’ll get done in a day or a week. Small, meaningful steps taken with consistency can take you everywhere you want to go.

7. Make time for your soul work

Hanley says,

Every job comes with a long list of responsibilities, but you have an obligation to do the work that speaks to your soul too, even if it doesn’t show up anywhere on that list. When you plan your week, make sure to block out a chunk or two of time that you can devote to the work that’s speculative—the proposal for the new project, or even the art you create on the side that keeps you a passionate and engaged person—because that energy will spill over into the narrower confines of your “job,” too.

Blogging is soul work for me. I do it because I enjoy it more than I do it for an ROI measured in dollars and cents.


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.

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What if your article has 5 points, but 1 is a digression?

Imagine that you have five important points to make in an article, quarterly commentary, or white paper. Four of the points hang together. The fifth point is a digression. It doesn’t have much to do with the other four points. How can you best manage your oddball point?

Solution 1. Delete your digression

In the best of all possible worlds, your piece has a clear focus. Don’t dilute it by adding irrelevant information.

Solution 2. Move it to the end

Deleting the unrelated content isn’t always possible. I often encounter this in quarterly client letters.

For example, a letter may discuss the developments that drove portfolio performance during the past quarter. However, it’s also relevant to discuss the firm’s new hire.

In this case, discuss the new hire at the end of the letter. If possible, set off the announcement with a new heading.

Solution 3. Put it in a sidebar box

If you’re writing a longer piece that will be printed or published as a PDF, you have more options. You can put your digression into a sidebar box. That box gives a visual cue that its content is not essential to the main thrust of what you’ve written.

Other ideas?

If you have other ideas for handling a digression, please share them with me.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy “5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary.”

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My 2017 reading, with book recommendations for you

Here are some of the books I read (or referred to) in 2017, divided by categories. The starred books are books that I refer to in 2017 blog posts, some of which haven’t been published yet.


* Bossypants by Tina Fey

* Turner: the extraordinary life and momentous times of J.M.W. Turner by Franny Moyle

Elder care

I learned about the first two books in this section from New York Times columnist Ron Lieber’s article, “Hard-Won Advice in Books on Aging and Elder Care.” I imagine the other books he reviewed are equally good.

The 36-hour day: a family guide to caring for people who have Alzheimer disease, other dementias, and memory loss by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins — This book has many practical tips.

A bittersweet season: caring for our aging parents—and ourselves by Jane Gross

Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It by Andrew E. Budson and Maureen K. O’Connor — One of the authors spoke at my local library. I missed his talk, but the book seems solid.


* Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

* One Perfect Pitch: How to Sell Your Idea, Your Product, Your Business–or Yourself (Business Books) by Marie Perruchet

Personal finance

* Breaking Money Silence: How to Shatter Money Taboos, Talk Openly about Finances, and Live a Richer Life by Kathleen Burns Kingsbury

Garner's Modern American Usage

Reference books for writers

* Associated Press Stylebook by Associated Press

* Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner — This has become a “go to” reference for me.


Hemingway didn’t say that: the truth behind familiar quotations by Garson O’Toole

The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language by David Crystal — Before I read this book I hadn’t thought about the many meanings of the word “be.”


Do I Make Myself Clear: Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans

* Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword — This book was my favorite discovery in 2017.Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing

* Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt



Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.