Tag Archive for: writing

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.”

Working with a sensitivity reader

Have you ever considered working with a sensitivity reader on your writing for your business? Do you even know what a sensitivity reader is?

In my article on “How to edit articles about Black people,” I mentioned that writers who are concerned about diversity and inclusion can hire a reader with specialized skills or background to give feedback on how they might improve their writing in that respect. The readers may be members of the groups the writers are discussing or targeting. This kind of sensitivity seems as if it could help advisors who are trying to appeal to diverse prospects, clients, employees, and others.

To learn more about how using a sensitivity reader works, I hired one to review “How to edit articles about Black people.” This is my report on my experience.

The bottom line: Working with a sensitivity reader can be useful, especially if you don’t work with a community of people who can give you targeted feedback.

Hiring a sensitivity reader

I learned about sensitivity readers in “How to Use a Sensitivity Reader,” an article by writer Judi Ketteler in the Freelance Success newsletter (accessible only to paid subscribers). Luckily for me, Ketteler included contact information for two sources of sensitivity readers. First, I tried the sensitivity reader whom Ketteler used. After that reader didn’t reply to my inquiry entered through her website’s contact form (she responded later, apologizing for being busy), I moved along to the sensitivity readers available through Salt & Sage Books, the other source mentioned by Ketteler.

Salt & Sage Books offers the services of readers from diverse backgrounds.

For example, below are the characteristics of three readers highlighted by Salt & Sage when I was researching this blog post. More detailed profiles are available when you click on the individual profiles.

Reader 1

  • Chinese-American culture
  • “Hapa” or half-Asian culture
  • Tiger parents
  • Complex family relationships
  • Interracial romance
  • Gamer culture
  • San Francisco Bay area
  • Ancient Chinese magic systems

Reader 2

  • Muslim
  • Arab
  • Egyptian
  • Arab Diaspora
  • Post-Colonial People/Themes

Reader 3

  • Regional/cultural expertise growing up in the South (specifically TN)
  • Being in a minority religion (LDS) in the Bible belt
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Music/piano/band, teaching piano
  • Infertility, IVF, adoption
  • Divorce, single parenthood, remarriage, step-parenting, co-parenting

I’m sharing these three lists partly so you can see that a sensitivity reader isn’t just for issues of race.

However, in my case, I needed a reader who was sensitive to the issues of Black people. I mentioned that to Erin Olds, my Salt & Sage contact person, along with the fact that ideally I’d like to work with someone who has experience working with corporate clients, in case I’d have an opportunity to make a referral someday.

Erin gave me two lists of names with links to their profiles: a list of people who would be available to start work almost immediately and a list of people for whom I’d have to wait longer, if their profiles appealed to me more. She also highlighted names of readers experienced working with corporate clients. Only one of those three readers, Mya, was available right away, so I chose to work with them (Note: Mya is non-binary, so I’m using gender-neutral pronouns like “they.”)

Process, timing, and fees

From my initial inquiry to receiving my document with comments took a little over three weeks. The website states that “All edits will take a minimum of 3 weeks.”

First, I had to send a 50% down-payment and sign a surprisingly long legal agreement using DocuSign. Salt & Sage charged a minimum of $65 for sensitivity reading when I sent in my manuscript, but its prices page now shows the minimum as $140, with rates starting at $140 for 10,000 words.

When I checked with Erin about fees in March, she told me:

For sensitivity reading of longer manuscripts, we charge per word. We are actually in the process of increasing our prices, so according to those new prices, we charge .009c/word for a sensitivity read. We have very flexible payment plans, and for clients who have a smaller budget or want to do more up-front work, we are working on expanding our Incomplete Guides series, which give an overview of several identities. (Next two books in the queue: Writing Queer Characters, and Writing Nonbinary Characters.)

If you decide to use Salt & Sage, you can get a 10% discount by using my name.

Then, I sent my document to Erin. All communications go through Salt & Sage staff. You won’t have direct contact with your sensitivity reader.

Sensitivity reading results

I received two documents from Salt & Sage after the sensitivity reading: a marked-up copy of my blog post and a separate letter.

I was relieved to find only two comments on the marked-up version of my blog post. The first suggested elaborating on why word choice is important, and suggested a link to a Brookings Institution article. The second suggested that saying “people with a disability” isn’t always preferred to saying “the disabled,” and it suggested two links. I ended up incorporating all of the links.

The letter that accompanied the marked-up blog post also suggested linking to articles that explain why some people do not capitalize “white.” I didn’t incorporate that information, mainly because I included those links in my NAPFA Advisor column that I linked to in my blog post.

In their letter, Mya said about their perspective that “I am only one person with the perspective of one person. I am not a gatekeeper, nor do I have final say over what you include in your manuscript. My goal is to shine a light on areas that might be improved and give you further resources.” I appreciated that attitude.

I was also grateful for the comment that “I really enjoyed how you both brought your own perspective and referred to the authority of others when it came to this piece. For example, you don’t just tell your audience what to do on the basis of your own authority but defer to organizations and other resources to back up what you’re saying.”

“It takes a village”

It’s corny to say “It takes a village,” but my original blog post only came off as well as it did because it shared what I’ve learned through working with others.

I’d like to highlight several parts of my “village”:

  • The Freelance Success writers community (for subscribers only) was a big help when I was trying to figure out whether to capitalize Black, especially because I grappled with this before Associated Press style started capitalizing the term. Members directed me to some resources I would have taken longer to find on my own.
  • Kevin Adler, the assistant editor whom I work with at the NAPFA Advisor, is much more attuned to racial issues than I am, so I’ve benefited from his guidance.
  • The NAPFA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Initiative, which is raising relevant issues.
  • Understanding Our Differences, a local program that offered the training that introduced me to the idea that the words I use to refer to people make a difference.

Think about trying to develop your own “village.” Consider a sensitivity reader as a way to expand your perspective!

 

 

 

Stop submitting articles as PDFs!

Please don’t submit your unsolicited articles to editors as PDFs. In my role as the editor of a monthly magazine, I find PDFs frustrating. They tempt me to trash an article immediately. (Of course, ignore my advice if a publication asks you to submit articles as PDFs.)

Why do authors send PDFs?

None of my writer friends could understand why authors would submit articles as PDFs. I imagine that perhaps the writers want to protect their intellectual property. I think this because before sending me a Microsoft Word document, a writer has—very rarely—asked me to swear that I won’t use their article without their permission.

A PDF offers some protection because copying an article from a PDF can be challenging if the author has locked the PDF with a password. Even if there’s no password, it can be time-consuming to copy-paste from the PDF or to fix mistakes that sneak in when a PDF is converted to a Microsoft Word document.

Or, perhaps the authors want to preserve their articles’ formatting. That formatting doesn’t matter to me—at least not when I’m assessing whether an article is potentially publishable.

Why I prefer Microsoft Word

I want an article that’s easy for me to edit/rewrite, format, and rearrange. Microsoft Word is much better for all of that than Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is the Adobe program most often used by writers and editors. I’ll often move blocks of text in my quest to make an article publishable. I can’t do that in a PDF.

PDFs are useful later

However, PDFs are useful once the production staff formats articles for publication. Then, they offer the advantage of letting me see how the article will look once it’s professionally printed (or distributed as a PDF or published to a website). They also make it somewhat easier to track who suggests which changes.

I couldn’t live without PDFs when I’m reviewing the layout of the monthly magazine that I edit. But, please don’t send any editor your articles as PDFs unless the editor has asked you to do so.

 

Investment commentary topic: ETF controversy

Are you tired of only discussing recent market developments in your investment commentary? Look to your professional reading for ideas, as I suggest in my webinar, “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read.” A topic leaped out at me when I read the CFA Institute’s Financial Analysts Journal (FAJ) from 2021’s first quarter.

The title of “Levered and Inverse Exchange-Trade Products: Blessing or Curse?” (summary available, but subscription required to read the entire article) lays out the topic clearly. The authors say in their summary: “levered and inverse products are not, and cannot be, effective investment management tools.”

If this is a topic that interests you, as well as your clients and prospects, there are several approaches you can take.

3 ways you can use a Financial Analysts Journal article for investment commentary

Approach #1. Run with the topic on your own.

If you know this topic well, you may be able to opine at length off the top of your head. Go for it, if that’s what your clients expect and enjoy. The FAJ article has served its purpose if it only identifies a new topic for you.

A variation on this approach is to simply explain what levered and inverse ETFs are. If you’re writing for an audience of retail investors, they may never have heard of them or may not understand what they are. They’ll need a plain-English explanation. Of course, before you dig into the details, explain why your readers should care that these funds exist.

Approach #2. Use this article to bolster your case against these ETFs.

The authors discuss how “the most important problem with geared (levered) and inverse funds is that most of them are expected to collapse.” As part of this, they review these ETFs’ history and performance. There’s likely to be some information you can use to make your case against these ETFs.

The degree of detail that you go into will depend on your audience. Sophisticated institutional investors will understand (and be interested in) more details and technical information than your typical retail investor.

When you quote—or use statistics from—this FAJ article, refer to it as the source. That’s only fair. Plus, mentioning a reputable source like the FAJ will enhance your credibility.

I explain one approach to this kind of article in “Financial blogging tip: opinion + summary.”

Approach #3. Argue against the article’s conclusion.

If you think the article’s conclusion is wrong, say why. Is there a big hole in the authors’ arguments? Or perhaps you think the authors too quickly dismiss these ETFs’ value as what even they admit is “an inexpensive, convenient, highly levered, and limited-liability means for profiting from a directional price view.”

If your firm isn’t a creator of such ETFs, visit the websites of the creator firms. They’re bound to have helpful information.

If you disagree with the article, you may not want to refer to the article in your commentary. However, if your clients have read the article, mentioning it shows that you don’t ignore all information that disagrees with you. That’s good. You can also rebut specific points, while referring to areas where you agree.

Bonus investment commentary topics

Two of the other articles in this issue of the FAJ also struck me as potential sparks for your investment commentary:

  • Should Mutual Fund Investors Time Volatility?” —Volatility is a timely topic. You don’t necessarily need to go into the details of the authors’ thesis. You can see where the topic takes you.
  • Reports of Value’s Death May Be Greatly Exaggerated”—This is a topic close to the hearts of value investors who’ve been suffering for years as growth has outperformed. You may not agree with the take of Research Affiliates’ Rob Arnott and his coauthors. However, they raise questions worth considering. For example:
    • “Was value merely lucky in the past, or is it now arbitraged away by its own popularity?”
    • “Have structural changes in the economy made the value factor newly irrelevant?”
    • “What to expect from value?”

The FAJ’s other two articles could serve as fodder for some commentary, but their appeal is more limited. This blog post discusses the three articles that I think have the broadest possible appeal.

YOUR ideas?

Have you read something that could spur interesting investment commentary? Please comment.