Tag Archive for: writing

What do sidebar and ESG have in common?

Do you know the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog post? Both “sidebar” and “ESG” are words that people in some fields immediately understand, but they perplex many other people. “Sidebar” refers to area of text, often placed in a box, to the side of an article. “ESG” is short for “environmental, social, and corporate governance.” Being aware of people’s limited comprehension should influence how you write.

My research on technical terms

When I ask people if they know the meaning of “sidebar” and “ESG,” the results are mixed.

My writer friends mostly understand “sidebar,” and my financial colleagues mostly understand “ESG.” But I’m not convinced that those two populations overlap a lot. At least not outside of financial writers, writers who believe in socially responsible investing, and financial folks who work closely with editors as they write for publication. I imagine that far fewer members of the general public understand both words.

What’s a writer to do?

I’m a big believer in briefly defining technical terms, as I’ve discussed in “Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical.” Thus, I write “environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG)” when using the term with any audience that may not be familiar with the term. Sure, many audience members may understand the abbreviation, but my short definition won’t hurt their reading experience. They’re probably used to glossing over the spelled-out version of ESG.

I could explain “sidebar,” but I’ve found a solution I like better. Instead, I now use a handy workaround. I replace “see sidebar” with “see ‘TITLE OF SIDEBAR ARTICLE’ below.” It’s easy for the reader to scan for the title, without wondering, “What the heck is a sidebar?”

Down with meaningless claims!

Business BlatherThis blog post was inspired by a section in Business Blather: Stop Using Words That Sound Good but Say Nothing! by Jerry McTigue. As you know, I agree with the mission of this book.

Delete meaningless claims

In a section called “Enough with the platitudes already,” McTigue criticizes the “litanies of clichés and banalities writers believe exude a corporate luster simply because virtually every corporation proclaims them.” He adds, “Unverified off-the-shelf pronouncements are innumerable—as many bloated corporate documents attest to.”

In the world of financial advice, this means statements such as “We provide superior customer service.”

Turn meaningless claims into meaningful claims

What’s the solution for this kind of writing? McTigue says, “Prove it. Illustrate it. Support it.”

In the area of customer service, do you have a case study documenting how your firm’s service truly goes beyond the ordinary? That’s a good place to start.

As McTigue says, “Replace those threadbare boasts with real substance, solid evidence, credible endorsements.”

You may enjoy this book

Overall, McTigue’s book is an entertaining, easy-to-read book. It has many powerful before-and-after examples of bad writing transformed into effective writing.

 

Note: I received a free review copy of this book.

 

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.

 

When to send an article to the expert, not an editor

If you work in a marketing or editorial group, the pieces that you work on may get comments from many different people. Sometimes your next step should be to send the piece to an editor to clean up or proofread the writing. Other times, you need to send the piece back to the subject-matter expert—often called a SME in the marketing world.

When to send to the expert

Send the piece to the expert when reviewers raise questions that can only be answered by an expert. For example, “Which S&P 500 sectors does this technique apply to?” That’s not a question to which an editor is likely to know the answer.

The answer is less clear when one of the reviewers has written, “Please rewrite more simply.” Then it’s a judgment call whether expert knowledge is required to implement the reviewer’s request. If you’ve worked a long time at your company, you may know enough to make that call.

When to send to the editor

If reviewers have mainly made line edits to an article, you can send the piece to your editor. Cleaning up the grammar or word usage is unlikely to require a subject-matter expert.

When you’re not sure

When you’re not sure about the best next step, I suggest you ask your editor for advice. An editor to whom you’re important as an internal or external client is likely to respond more quickly than a subject-matter expert who views your work as tangential to their role. Also, smart editors will tell you when they lack the expertise to resolve an issue.

YOUR tips?

Do you have tips on how to handle this issue? Please share them.

3 times to use passive verbs in your writing

I usually slash passive verbs in articles that I edit. (Don’t know what a passive verb is? Read this.) But sometimes I leave them in place. When? When the sentence should emphasize the person or thing that the verb is acting on. Or, when you don’t want to identify the person or thing that is taking an action.

Use the passive voice in the following three instances.

1. When you want to avoid identifying the actor

Imagine that you’re communicating with a client who mistakenly deposited money into the wrong account. Do you want to emphasize the client’s mistake, as if to say, “Hey, stupid, you put money in the wrong account”? No, it’s better to say, “Money was deposited in the wrong account,” and then describe how to fix the problem.

A classic example of failing to identify the actor is the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Sentences like that make me want to shake the author. I want to yell, “Tell me who made the mistake!” I sometimes see such sentences in descriptions of investment underperformance. I don’t agree with that approach. I think it’s better to identify the reason for underperformance and say what you’re going to do about it. I discussed that in “Four lessons from Wasatch Funds on reporting underperformance.”

2. When you don’t know the identity of the actor

Sometimes the problem with active verbs isn’t that you don’t want to identify the actor. It’s that you don’t know what the heck caused the action. For example, “The price of PQR stock was depressed.”

Perhaps that’s a bad example because you can usually find a pundit to opine on the reason for a stock price movement. However, perhaps you want to be honest about your not really knowing the reason for the stock price decline.

3. When you want to highlight the topic over the actor

Sometimes the actor is less important than the subject that it’s acting on. For example: “The conditions are forming for a dramatic decline in stock prices.” In this case, the factors driving the decline are less important than the imminent decline.

Stay active most of the time

Despite the fact that passive verbs are sometimes appropriate, please go easy on using them. Active verbs are usually better.

 

Go from short to long!

Rearranging elements of a sentence “from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them,” says Bruce Ross-Larson in Edit Yourself: A Manual for everyone who works with words, one of my favorite editing books.

Ross-Larson has three related rules.

  • First, count the syllables. This will let you identify shorter words to put first.
  • Then, “if the number of syllables is the same, count the letters.” That can be a tie-breaker.
  • Finally, “Put the compound elements last.” As an example, he suggests that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reads better than “liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life.” I guess that’s why the Declaration of Independence uses the suggested order.

Of course, these three rules don’t always apply. As Ross-Larson says, don’t follow the rules if that’ll:

  • Put elements out of chronological or sequential order
  • Create unintended modifiers
  • Upset a familiar or explicit order, such as “the birds and the bees” or going in order from more conservative to less conservative asset classes

Small changes like this can make your writing easier to read. That means you’re likely to convey your message more effectively.

 

 

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.

Data are versus data is

Should you write “data is” or “data are”? Whenever possible, I suggest writing to avoid the use of the term “data” by itself. Why? Because, as Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “Data is a SKUNKED term: whether you write data are or data is, you’re likely to make some readers raise their eyebrows.” I think Garner is right about that.

I just started a poll on LinkedIn asking if people see the word as plural or singular. There was no consensus, though respondents favored plural.

data singular or plural

Data are

There’s no question that the word “data” comes from Latin, in which “data” is plural and “datum” would be the singular form.

In favor of using plural verbs, Garner says:

  • “Technically a plural, data has, since the 1940s, been increasingly treated as a mass noun taking a singular verb. But in more or less formal contexts it is preferably treated as a plural.”
  • “In one particular use, data is rarely treated as singular: when it begins a clause and is not preceding by an article. E.g.: Data over the last two years suggest…”

Associated Press style agrees with Garner in one context, saying “In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.”

Should you write "data are" or "data is"?

Data is

However, times are changing. Associated Press style generally favors “data is.”

In favor of SINGULAR, Garner says: “One context in which the singular use of data might be allowed is in computing and allied disciplines…”

It depends

Some experts don’t use the same verb tense across all cases. I think Grammar Girl’s quote from Oxford Dictionaries in particularly useful in describing why one publication or editor might sometimes use singular verbs and sometimes use plural verbs. The Grammar Girl website says:

Oxford Dictionaries maintains that “data” has developed two separate meanings:

  1. the original plural meaning that conveys the idea of multiple data bits or pieces
  2. a singular meaning that acts as a mass noun roughly equivalent to the word “information.”

Grammar Girl also says:

Dictionaries and news sites including the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, and style guides including The Chicago Manual of Style have updated their recommendations to allow that “data” can be singular or plural.

Along similar lines, The Copyeditor’s Handbook says: “…copyeditors in corporate communications departments are often expected to treat data as a singular noun.” It contrasts this with academic presses and scholarly journals using plural.

What should YOU do?

One way to deal with this issue is to avoid it by writing in a way that doesn’t make you choose between plural and singular verbs. A math writer friend uses “the set of data” for this purpose.

If you can’t avoid the need to choose, then I suggest you pick one style and stick with it. If everyone in your company knows that the corporate style is “data is” or “data are,” you’ll make everyone’s lives easier.

Writing tip: Why are you telling me this?

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask this again and again as I read articles written by nonprofessional writers. Their articles don’t capture my attention because they don’t give me a reason to care about their topic.

Why nonprofessionals fall short

Nonprofessional writers display admirable enthusiasm for their topics, but they often have a hard time putting themselves in the “shoes” of their readers.

Nonprofessional writers often fail to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). Readers look for the WIIFM when they decide whether to read your article. If they’re reading online, they’re often looking for a solution to a specific problem they face. They’re not going to read your article just because you publish it on your blog or in your newsletter.

If people start reading your article because they have a relationship with you, they still want to learn the WIIFM, even if the answer is only “You’ll learn an interesting idea that you can share with your colleagues or on social media.”

Nonprofessional writers often suffer from the “curse of knowledge.” As I discussed in “Why hire a writer? Three powerful reasons,” it’s hard for them to explain things to outsiders because they know too much. They may use words that are too technical or they get bogged down in details. They can also forget to say why their topic is important because its importance is so clear to them.

Questions to help you

Here are two questions that can help you figure out why you are writing an article.

  1. How do you want this article to help you or your organization?

For example, are you writing an article to gain new newsletter subscribers or to interest readers in a specific product or services offered by your company? Do you want to correct a misconception about your company being too conservative (or too aggressive), or not up on the latest investments, or not well-run?

You may not explicitly mention this goal in your article. However, understanding this goal will help to shape your article. And, your article may benefit from an explicit call to action, such as “For more tips, subscribe to our newsletter!” or “Schedule a call to learn about our XYZ service!”

  1. What’s the WIIFM for your readers?

What is a problem that your readers face that your article can solve? It could be something specific to your firm, such as how to explain to their bosses why they’re sticking with your firm instead of switching to a firm with a better-known name. Or maybe it’s solving a challenge with their organization’s budgeting, or the need to have something interesting to discuss at their next social event.

I explain a way to identify your reader’s WIIFM in “Identifying ‘WHAT PROBLEM does this blog post solve for them?’

Tell readers why you’re telling them

Once you’ve figured out your reader’s WIIFM, don’t forget to incorporate it into your article. Don’t phrase it as “I’m telling you this because.” Instead, identify the reader’s pain point, and say how your article addresses it.

I share one way to do this in “Make your writing easier with my fill-in-the-blanks approach for structuring articles.”

Keep it short with the Fog Index!

Warren Miller, CPA, CFA, one of my longtime newsletter readers, urged me to remind you to write more concisely. As Warren wrote, “most of us overeducated people write sentences that have too many words, too many of which have too many syllables.” I admit that I’m sometimes guilty of this. And, I see lots of verbose financial writing.

Warren likes the Fog Index—also known as the Gunning Fox Index—to help you catch wordy writing. It measures how hard your text is to read, in terms of the number of words per sentence, and the use of longer words. Here’s an image of the index formula that Warren sent me:

keep it short

Easy ways to calculate the Fog Index

Don’t feel like calculating the Fog Index yourself? These websites will calculate the Fog Index for you. For example:

  • Gunning Fog Index—I like that this website highlights words of three or more syllables. That helps you identify words to simplify. However, the website’s syllable detector makes mistakes. For example, it identified “weighs” as a word of three or more syllables. You and I know there’s only one syllable in “weighs.”
  • Readability Formulas has a page dedicated to the index. It also offers an array of other readability calculators.

The two websites’ calculations must differ because the Gunning Fog Index page yielded a score of 8.855, while Readability Formulas rated my sample as 9.3 and “fairly easy to read.”

Fog Index infographic

How to lower your score

Readability Formulas says that a Fog score of 7 or 8 is “ideal,” and “Anything above 12 is too hard for most people to read.” So, what can you do if your score is too high?

Start by shortening long sentences. Sometimes you can cut a long sentence into two or even three pieces. Other times, you’ll need to rethink your approach to long sentences. Perhaps you can delete unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. Another option is to insert a short sentence to break up the flow of long sentences.

Then, look for words that are unnecessarily long or technical. Perhaps you used the word “rodomontade” or “fanfaronade.” Substitute “boasting,” and you’ll dramatically increase reader comprehension, in addition to cutting word length.

Another way to lower your score is to use the tool that I discuss in “Free help for wordy writers!

However, please remember that shorter doesn’t always mean better. Emphasize reader-friendliness over shortness.

Lousy headline, provocative first sentence

I nearly didn’t read an interesting article about stocks in The New York Times.

Why?

The problem of a lousy headline

I nearly skipped the article because of the bland headline: “An Ear to the Ground on Stocks.” The article could have been about anything. Perhaps college students who pick stocks for a class. An investment club. A well-known equity portfolio manager. But the real topic was more intriguing. What a shame that the lousy headline prevented some readers from discovering it!

The first sentence of this article by Mark Hulbert grabbed my attention. It said, “Investor sentiment suggests that the bulk of the stock market’s decline is now behind us.” Now that’s provocative. The author takes issue with what most people think. That should have been communicated in the article’s headline. What if the title had read, “Data suggest the worst of the stock market decline is over”?

I also like how Hulbert summarized his argument–and set up the structure for the rest of his article–in his next paragraph:

This conclusion is based on an analysis of two very different groups. The first is investment newsletter editors, who, on average, are usually wrong about the market’s direction; they are currently bearish. The second is corporate insiders, who usually get it right, and they are mostly bullish

From there, Hulbert discussed the behavior of newsletter editors, and then of corporate insiders. He spent four paragraphs on editors and five on insiders. The equal weighting between the two topics reflected his good organization. If he’d had six paragraphs on editors vs. one on insiders, he probably should have emphasized the editors more in his summary.

Writing lessons from this article

Lessons for writers:

  • It isn’t enough for your headline to be accurate, it has to attract attention. In the Hulbert example, the headline would have benefited from a rewrite.
  • State your main idea—and your main supporting points—clearly at the beginning of your article. If possible, say something provocative.
  • The body of your article should follow the organization that you set up in your introduction.
  • Compare the number of paragraphs you allocate to each main point from your introduction. If they’re roughly the same, then your introduction probably gives the right weight to each point. If not, you may need to tweak your introduction or the body of your article.

For example of a provocative headline, visit this post about Treasuries on my blog.

NOTE: This blog post was originally published in 2008 on one of my earlier blogs. But it’s still relevant today, so I’m republishing it.

“Better writing without parentheses” by Harriett Magee

Parentheses are overused in financial writing. Here’s a guest article about them by Harriett Magee, a writer-editor who specialized in alternative investments. Her article originally appeared on Jan. 27, 2008, on one of my earlier blogs. It’s still relevant, so I’m sharing it here.

Better writing without parentheses

By Harriett Magee

Parentheses (like all punctuation) can hurt (and help) most writers (maybe even all) in getting their point across to readers.

Readers may find such marks annoying, like in the previous sentence, because they interrupt the flow and weaken the message with irrelevancies. And while most readers don’t count words in sentences, parentheses often result in long sentences, which tire and confuse readers. (The ideal sentence length is 15–20 words.) To get your message across, use parentheses sparingly.

For writers, parentheses can seem like a lifesaver because they offer a home to data and show you’ve done your homework. They’re ubiquitous in research reports. Writers may also use them as a way to repeat information to drive the point home. For example, “The $750 million Big Ideas Venture Fund II was allocated roughly half to early- and to late-stage life science investments (49% and 51%, respectively). Fund III, however, had only about a tenth of capital ($75 million) invested in one early-stage investment.” But readers will get the point faster if you leave out numbers.

When writing about investments, often the urge to insert alternative metrics can be satisfied by putting the data in a graph. For example, give the prospective investors in the $2 billion Big Ideas Fund IV a bar graph showing the shift in allocations to young vs. more-established companies. A bar graph would accomplish two things: provide variety by breaking up the text with a picture, resulting in more white space to give the eyes a rest, and provide alternative metrics for people, especially those who want more detail.

I love Harriett’s idea of moving the parenthetical information to a graph. It’s a great way to boost the visual appeal of your writing. At the same time, it makes the text easier to read.

By the way, using parentheses isn’t the same as making parenthetical references. Parenthetical references can make your writing more reader-friendly. I explain that in “Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical.”