Go easy on screamers!

Exclamation points are called “screamers” in the newspaper world, as I learned in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer. And they have many other colorful names that you can learn about in “‘Screamer,’ ‘Slammer,’ ‘Bang’… and 15 Other Ways to Say ‘Exclamation Point’” in The Atlantic. However, the point of this post is to suggest that you use them in moderation in your serious business communications.

Limit use of exclamation points

Bernstein argues for restraint by saying, “the statements that require it—those containing a strong emotional charge—are themselves relatively rare—and because omitting the mark often produces a kind of understatement that is strong in itself.”

Bernstein scorns “Now!” and “New!” as “tricks of salesmanship” that “bear no relationship to general writing.”

Since Bernstein’s book was published in 1973, exclamation points have, if anything, become more popular. “Buy now!” buttons seem to be everywhere.

But people still argue against their abuse. “Minimize the use of exclamation points” is one of four rules for emails, as shared by Daniel Post of the Emily Post Institute in “Mind Those Manners: Kids Need Lessons in Email and Phone Etiquette,” a 2020 article in The Wall Street Journal.

The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications echoes Bernstein, saying “Only rarely are exclamation points needed in expository writing. (Novelists, letter writers, and playwrights, of course, are free to revel in them.)”

Exclamation marks online and in email

In her Atlantic article, Megan Garber calls the exclamation point “cockroach of the punctuation world.” She adds:

And that’s particularly so in the digital space, which so infamously encourages its proliferation (!!!!). The exclamation will, despite and because of all the things that make it terrible, survive us all.

My take on exclamation marks

Exclamation mark use undercuts the seriousness of your business writing. Also, when used to excess, exclamation marks lose their wallop.

This is especially when you use the mark outside of sales pieces and informal communications, such as emails and texts.

However, I’ve had to overcome my dislike of exclamation marks in emails and texts. That’s because I’ve read articles like “Is your texting punctuation sending the wrong message? Yes. Maybe! Think so …” That article says that to younger texters, “An exclamation point might feel like a tool indicating politeness.” However, the author also warns us that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the exclamation mark can seem “heartlessly chipper.”

Other articles have warned me that I might seem cold if I write “Thank you” instead of “Thank you!” in my emails. I was particularly struck by the message in favor of exclamation points presented in “The Tyranny of the Exclamation Point Is Causing Email and Text Anxiety” in The Wall Street Journal. That has changed my writing in emails, but not in the white papers, investment commentary, and financial articles that account for most of my work.

In texts and emails, take your cue from the people with whom you’re communicating. In your traditional business communications, stick to the traditional rules.


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.

Increase the sonic force of your writing

Sentences that sound better are likely to read better, too. I’ve discovered this by reading my writing out loud. One way to improve their sound is to increase their sonic force, according to Joe Moran in First You Write a Sentence.

Short words boost sonic force

As Moran explains:

A sentence has more sonic force if there are more stressed than unstressed syllables. When we speak, we stress one syllable of each word. Even polysyllabic words stress only one key syllable, so the more long words there are in a sentence, the fewer stresses it has.

Thus, sentences composed of short words have more stresses. That means more sonic force, too.

Cut syllables for more sonic force

“Cut syllables where you can,” advises Moran. For examples of how to do this, see my posts on “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers” and “More substitutions for economical writers.”

Favor vowels over consonants. “The vowel sound of a syllable is the basic unit of speech. A consonant cannot be fully voiced without it,” says Moran. Good use of short words and varied vowels creates what Moran calls the “chewy vowel music.”

Can you create “chewy vowel music?”


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.

8 ways to cut word count and boost your impact!

Sometimes you need to cut word count (or character count). Maybe you’re answering an asset management RFP or filling a website template that limits your space. Or maybe you realize the document you’re editing is simply too long.

I have eight tips for how you can cut word count. These tips also help if you’re trying to cut your character count.

1. Cut paragraphs and sentences

You’ll lose the biggest number of words at once when you cut entire paragraphs and sentences. Read your document carefully to identify unnecessary blocks of words.

Although you can cut word count most dramatically by using this technique, I sometimes try it only after I’ve made one round of line-by-line edits. Why? Because sometimes I can’t identify superfluous content before closely reading the document.

2. Use Hemingway App

Try the Hemingway App if you don’t know where to start to cut word count. It automatically flags sentences that it considers too long. It also highlights some other potential problems that I discuss below.

I tend to use Hemingway App last because I’m confident about where to start. However, I’m less confident that I’ll catch all problems. Hemingway App has my back.

3. Cut adverbs and adjectives

Many adverbs and adjectives aren’t necessary. That’s especially true when you use a strong verbs and nouns to carry your message.

I agree with Mark Twain. He said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”  Also, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

When you use fewer adverbs and adjectives, you intensify the power of those you do use.

Hemingway App (see tip #2) identifies adverbs for you.

4. Substitute simple words for phrases

For example, “building my knowledge” becomes “learning.” “In advance of” becomes “before.”

A corollary of this tip is “Replace jargon.” However, sometimes removing jargon will boost your word count. That’s OK by me if it makes your document more readable—and you can remain within your word count limits.

You’ll find more examples in my post on “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

5. Replace passive verbs with active ones

For example, “Bond prices were depressed by the Fed’s actions” becomes “The Fed’s actions depressed bond prices.” The “after” version also makes the relationship between cause and effect easier to understand. That’s a double win!

6. Use pronouns

For example, write “it” instead of “investment philosophy,” if you refer to investment philosophy repeatedly and the meaning of “it” is clear from the context.

7. Rethink the content

Think about whether there’s a way to get to your point faster. This can help you implement my first tip. Like my first tip, I often leave this strategy until after a round of line edits has made me more familiar with the content and its flow.

8. Read the content out loud

When you listen to content, you can hear problems that are hard to see when you read only with your eyes.

Recent versions of Microsoft Word have a text-to-speech function called Speak. If you’re working with software that lacks this function, use the workaround I discussed in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.”

Bonus tip: Calculate your word count

If you’re aiming for a specific word count, make sure you know how to turn on the word count feature in Microsoft Word, or whatever software you’re using. This feature also shows character count—with and without spaces. Those spaces can make a difference.

If you’re not working in a program with a word count feature, you can visit a website like

A great way to annoy your editor

Would you like to guarantee that the editor of a magazine, blog, newspaper, or other publication never asks you to write for them again? Then, follow the advice in this article. I feel confident that your assigning editor will ignore your future proposals.

Surefire way to annoy

Here’s my advice: Accept a clearly defined assignment from an editor, and then turn in a story on a different topic. After all, if your new topic is interesting, the editor should be delighted, right?

No, no, no.

An editor’s perspective

When I’m wearing my “editor hat,” and I ask you to write on a specific topic. I want an article on that topic. That’s because the topic fits in with the rest of my editorial calendar. Also, I believe that my readers are interested in the topic.

Despite this, I’ve run into a writer who ignored the assignment that I’d given him. He turned in his article late, and didn’t comment in his cover email about his change of topic. When questioned, he said, “Oh, I figure everyone already knows all about that. I thought this topic was more interesting.”

Can you imagine how that infuriated me? Plus, then I had to start over in finding a writer to tackle my original topic.

When an article idea doesn’t work

There will be times when assignments don’t work out. Perhaps I was testing a hypothesis for which there’s not enough supporting evidence. Perhaps you weren’t able to gain access to the resources needed for the story.

I understand that things happen. However, please figure that out before your deadline. And, tell me about your issues early in the process. Don’t just drop a story on a different topic into my email inbox.



What “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” taught me about writing

Today’s guest post comes to you from business writer Anne Brennan.

What “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” taught me about writing

By Anne Brennan

Between the political climate and writing deadlines, sometimes you just need a break.

I’m not really into cars, and I drink coffee strictly for the caffeine, but I do like to laugh, so I am hooked on Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

Ironically, I pressed “Play” for the hilarity, but I found out that Seinfeld and his buddies really talk about the writing process and how they mine their lives for material. I find it fascinating.

Does your writing need a jolt? Check these out tips from some of your fave comedians.

1. Keep sharp.

It’s fascinating to see big-time comedians like Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin admit that they are too chicken to jump back onto the comedy stage. They think they lost their edges, and it feels too intimidating. This episode was obviously before Eddie Murphy returned to SNL and killed. (See, I’m picking up the lingo.)

Writing daily in a journal or working on small writing projects helps keep you in the flow, so you don’t have to start from scratch when it’s time to produce material.

2. Work or play?

In one moment, Seinfeld makes Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld,” laugh so hard David does a spit-take at the diner. Seinfeld asks: “How did we get any work done?” Their camaraderie has endured, obviously. Ironically, David always hoped the show would get canceled so he didn’t have to write any more episodes.

I had the impression Seinfeld was basically retired, as he quips he doesn’t need money, but then he reveals he works three out of four weekends…and then all of a sudden there are images of him starring in Las Vegas. Hmmm…sounds like work to me.

If writing starts to feel like work, switch to play mode. Write about something fun, take a break, play with your dog, whatever helps shift you from drudgery to enjoyment.

3. Embrace the inner critic.

Every writer has an inner critic. Imagine what it’d be like to have this critic in actual human form, as an audience member, heckler, or even professional paid critic, scowling as you share your writing. Comedians know this is just part of the deal. Some of the funniest stories are about the times they bombed, or how they handled a heckler. Chris Rock shares a story about bombing so badly that HE had to pay the comedy club manager $50 and beg his dad for a ride home.

Suddenly, MY inner critic looks pretty nice.

If you’re questioning yourself during the creative process, acknowledge it. The more you write, the more you’ll develop resilience, just like the comedians.

4. What’s the big idea?

You’d think “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” would focus a lot on show biz talk like agents, tours, and how to land a Netflix deal. Actually, there’s a lot of talk about ideas between the comedians.

Ideas are everything, and not just in show business. This dawned on me when I worked at the Chicago Tribune. The job description said writer/editor, but I felt like I was an idea factory. Everyone was always asking for an idea, in one form or the other.

Seinfeld’s strategy for brainstorming? You just wait. The idea will come. Dave Chappelle lets the idea–no matter how crazy–be the “driver.” He’s basically there for the ride. He puts his ego in the backseat and lets the idea–say, a blind, black white supremacist–take over.

Writers should run with their big ideas.

5. Use sweat equity.

Some guests are NERVOUS. Seth Rogen is visibly sweating during his interview. “Are you nervous?” Seinfeld asks, sipping his coffee.

“Jerry, don’t do this to me,” Rogen says, begging him not to point it out.

If your writing is boring you, take a chance and go a little deeper. Choose a topic that means something to you. Break a sweat.

6. Reasonable doubt shouldn’t stop you.

Are you a little reluctant to submit your blog, white paper, or novel to someone? You have good company. It amazes me that a few of the legendary comedians subtly ask Seinfeld if their episode is going all right. The episodes are about 18 minutes long. At a few points, the guests—this includes David Letterman—ask if the filming is continuing because they’re not providing enough funny material. News flash: Seinfeld was enjoying their company so that’s why they continued filming.

Feeling a little doubtful your writing is hitting the mark? You’ve got good company. Keep on truckin’, so to speak.

7. Use a surprise ending.

Seinfeld interviews a variety of comedians, from his hero, Jerry Lewis, to current star Sebastian Maniscalco. It’s inspiring to see how their stories intertwine, how they started their careers and the twists and turns of fate. You never know where an idea will take you, that’s the fun part of writing…and life. You can see the shock passing over Maniscalco’s face when Seinfeld asks him what he’s doing later after they film.

“Want to come over for dinner?” Seinfeld asks.

Maniscalco’s about to say, “That would be fan…tastic,” but he regains his composure to finish the sentence. His reply: “That would be… fascinating.”

It was hilarious.

Anne Brennan is a freelance writer whose credits include: Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Crain’s Chicago Business and Yoga Journal. ​Find writing tips and info at her LinkedIn profile.

How to name your writing files to reduce confusion

Version control can be a nightmare when you’re working on any white paper, article, or other written piece. This is especially true if more than one person is involved in the writing and review process. Naming your writing files appropriately can prevent you from editing an outdated file. Here are four practical tips for achieving this.

1. Pick an informative file name

If you give your files generic names like “draft” or “article,” it’s hard to distinguish one article from another. The challenge is even worse if you use random file names, such as “4690366-9%ywyQyZ.” I sometimes receive files like that.

I often start by indicating the author or client name and the topic or format. For example, “Miller_Intl Investing” or “XYZAssetMgt White Paper.”

This makes it easy for me to identify the right white paper when, for example, I scroll through a list of recently opened files.

2. Add a date

Want to make sure you edit the most recent version of a file? When you edit a document, rename it by adding the date at the end. To make it easy to sort files in chronological order, I don’t use words (like March) to indicate the month. Instead, I use numerals. For example, I put 031920 to represent March 19, 2020 at the end of a file name.

If you sometimes work on files over the course of multiple years, consider putting the year first in your date indicator. That’ll make your files sort in chronological order for more than one calendar year. For the magazine that I edit, I name each issue starting with the year and then then month. For example, 2006 for June 2020.

3. Indicate version or stage

Some companies and writers go through formalized stages in their writing. For example, outline, draft, first revision, final revision.

If you’re deliberately submitting an outline instead of a first draft because that’s one stage of your writing process, it’s a good idea to add “outline” to the file name. Later I add labels like “draft” and “revision.”

For the magazine I edit, I’ll often add “FOR REVIEW” or “FOR REVISION,” depending on what actions I want the author to take upon receiving my edited version of their draft.

Some people also find it helpful to number their drafts in the file names. It prevents someone inadvertently editing an earlier version of a draft.

4. Add editor’s initials

Who made these edits? You won’t have to ask this question if the most recent person to edit a piece adds their initials at the end of the file name. For example, if EB edits a file after me, she would name her file “Draft 030120 SW EB.”

Of course, the file name can get unwieldy with too many editor’s names. That’s why I’ll often rename a file after my client returns it to me. For example, “XYZAssetMgt draft 030120 SW EB” becomes “XYZAssetMgt draft 030320 SW” with the change of date from March 1 (0301) to March 3 (0303) distinguishing it from the earlier draft.

Other tips for naming your writing files?

If you have other tips for naming your writing files, please share them with me. I enjoy learning things from you.

How to achieve continuity in your writing

Continuity in your writing is important. By continuity, I mean the easily followed flow of each sentence, paragraph, and section to what follows it.

I don’t remember reading about this topic before I encountered a section on “The importance of continuity” in John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style.

Here are four techniques that support continuity.

How to achieve continuity in your writing

1. Clean narrative line

Part of continuity is what Trimble calls “a clean narrative line. … Each sentence, each paragraph is hinged on the one that precedes it.”

As Trimble says, “When you know precisely where your essay has to go, you can ‘tell’ your argument as simply and coherently as if it were a story, which in a sense it is.” This is why, when I teach writing to financial professionals, I stress organizing your thoughts before you write. Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients devotes an entire chapter to how to do this using mind mapping.

2. Parallel structuring

Still, there are other techniques you can use for continuity. Trimble mentions parallel structuring, which refers to:

the way paragraph 2 repeats the pattern of paragraph 1; the way each of those paragraphs ends with a key sentence; the way paragraphs 3-5 all begin alike; the way the closing paragraph looks back to the opening paragraph, and so forth.

Parallel structuring is not required. In fact, sometimes it is counterproductive when it’s forced or boring. However, it can sometimes help. Consider adding it to your writing tool kit.

3. This, that, and other words

Trimble recommends “the occasional repetition of key words” as well as “the careful use of pronouns such as this and that.” Those pronouns link to the preceding sentences.

Next, there’s the use of conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases. Some are “bookish,” while others are conversational, like “in addition” versus “also.” Trimble lists many examples of these words that help “signpost” an argument.

4. Bridge sentences

Here’s another tip from Trimble: “View each paragraph opener as a bridge sentence aimed at smoothing our way into the new paragraph.” His illustration of the technique is very similar to what I suggest in my blog post discussing first-sentence checks.

Work at continuity

Continuity may not happen naturally. Trimble’s tips provide some tools to help you create continuity where it’s lacking.


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 by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Picture one person your work will help

Do you sometimes get stuck in the middle of writing something? Writer’s block and challenges with time When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pinkmanagement are common problems. I found a tip that may help in When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pink. The book discusses how to act at the right times, and how to overcome challenges at different points.

One person can help

One of Pink’s tips aims to help people who are stuck at a midpoint. “Picture one person who will benefit from your efforts. Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to your task,” he says.

I’ve met many advisors who struggle with completing blog posts, quarterly letters, or white papers. If you’re among them, would you feel more motivated to finish your blog post about 529 plans when you think about your meeting next week with the Millers, who want to help fund their grandchildren’s education? What if you think about a prospect with a highly concentrated stock portfolio, when you work on your white paper about diversification? Those thoughts would make a difference for me.

Added benefit for writers

Thinking of one person in your target audience is a doubly helpful tip for writers. Why? Because thinking about your reader will help you to write in a way that’s more reader-friendly than if your audience seems faceless to you. For example, you may remember that Jill Brown didn’t understand that technical term you used in explaining something to her.

More ways to overcome writer’s block

If you’re looking for more tips, here are my posts on managing writer’s block and distractions:

Your ideas?

How do you keep yourself moving when you feel stuck in a project? I’m always interested in learning from you.


Disclosure: If you click on the 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.


The image in the upper left is courtesy of Miklós Barabás [CC BY-SA 4.0]

4 tips for trimming extra words

Bryan Garner offers four tips for trimming extra words in his chapter “Waste no Words” in his HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

They include, when possible:Bryan Garner: HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

For examples of how to trim extra words, see my posts on Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers and More substitutions for economical writers


Disclosure: If you click on the 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.


The image in the upper left is courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly  [CC BY 3.0]

Writing to understand

I agree with Japanese novelist Haruki Marukami who says,

I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.

Writing things down forces me to clarify what I think. It forces me to learn as I fill in the missing links between different parts of what I’m saying.

This learning process is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging. That’s especially true of longer pieces such as “6 tips to keep your compliance officers happy,” in which I’m combining insights from multiple sources.

Many investment and financial planning professionals who blog share my feelings about writing to understand. They have confirmed this in their answers to polls I’ve run. This also fits with the theme of William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, a classic book.

I’d like to thank Warren, a subscriber to my e-newsletter, who sent me the link to’s “13 Quotes All Writers Will Relate To,” where I found Murakami’s quote.




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.