Financial website writers, match headlines to content or lose readers

Tuesday, Nov. 18th 2014

Your web pages should deliver on the promise made by your headlines. That doesn’t happen in the economic commentary example shown below (with company name blacked out).

Economic commentary example

Click on the image to view an easier-to-read version.


Let’s look at what went wrong, so you can avoid these mistakes.

1. Most of the paragraph is unrelated to the headline

A Wall Street Journal report about bank surcharges has nothing to do with the headline topic of “Emerging Markets Continue Impressive Growth While Developed Markets Continue Recovery.” Emerging markets don’t enter the picture until the last two sentences of the paragraph.

2. Too-long paragraph lacks WIIFM and topic sentence

The paragraph is so long and dense that it’s likely to scare away all but the most motivated readers. Writing for the web demands that short chunks replace massive blocks of information. The content doesn’t explain its WIIFM—what’s in it for me. To catch busy readers’ attention, you need to make it clear why they’ll benefit from your content. For example, will you help them to understand why emerging markets’ growth will outpace that of developed markets, making them an important component of a diversified portfolio? The example in the image above fails the WIIFM test.

The paragraph also lacks a strong topic sentence that introduces its overall topic. To me, it reads as if a person saw an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal and spouted reactions off the top of his or her head, and then moved on to a Financial Times article and, finally, a thought about the emerging markets.

3. The graph isn’t supported by the text

The “World Economy — Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” graph in the web page’s image doesn’t relate to the accompanying text. A good writer would have related the headline and the graph in his or her text, instead of rambling about banking.

How to fix this page?

Fixing this page would require one of two approaches. First, throw out all of the text, except possibly a revised version of the last two sentences, and create new content focused on the growth of emerging vs. developed markets, as shown by the graph, other data in the clickable link, and other evidence.

The second approach would require throwing out the current headline and graph to focus on the implications of the Fed’s capital surcharge. The banking text would need a drastic rewrite to become more focused and less flabby.


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Copyright 2014 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Writing sensitively about tragedy in your investment commentary or blog

Tuesday, Nov. 11th 2014

TragedyTragedy strikes more often than you’d like. It could be an event like the initial Malaysian Airlines plane disappearance, the Boston Marathon bombings, or something that happens in your community. Discussing tragedies can bring us closer together. It can make stale topics timely. However, it can also offend and disturb your readers, as discussed in “‘Epicurious’ Enrages Followers With Boston Bombings Tweets” on the Mashable blog or “This Guy’s Replies to 9/11 Brand Tweets Sum Up Everything That’s Wrong With 9/11 Brand Tweets.” You need to tread carefully. I have some thoughts about how to manage this challenge.

1. Acknowledge the tragedy

Before you dive into the bottom-line implications of the events, acknowledge that it’s a tragedy that affects human lives. You might write something like “We are all hoping for a happy ending in the disturbing case of…” or “We are deeply distressed by the…”

2. Consider your context

Context matters. Let’s consider three scenarios for writing about airline stocks the day after the March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Scenario one: Airlines analyst for a buy-side investment management firm

When you’re a securities analyst, writing about events that move stock prices is an essential part of your job. You can’t avoid it. Plus, if you’re a buy-side analyst, what you write will stay within your firm (unless you speak with the press). This gives you more freedom than writers who communicate with the general public. Your audience needs to know what effect an airlines disaster will have on the stocks you follow. In fact, it would be irresponsible to ignore the potential impact.

Still, you don’t want to be seen as gloating over an investment opportunity created by a tragedy. That’s ghoulish.

Scenario two: Wealth manager writing a client newsletter

When you write a newsletter for clients, you’ll have a feel for their sensibilities. Also, you’ll know what they expect from you—whether it’s coldly objective analysis or a warmly personal take on news that effects their finances.

If your clients value objectivity and data above all, I believe you can discuss the bottom-line implications of the tragedy after a quick acknowledgment of the sad event’s effect on people’s lives. Still, there may be more sensitive folks among your readers. Think about whether you need to discuss the tragedy now. If your newsletter discussion would be just as relevant later, then consider waiting.

Scenario three: Writer of a blog for general consumption

You’re at the greatest risk when you publish your thoughts in a medium, anyone can find online, uch as a blog or op-ed piece. Tread carefully. Consider how you would feel if you or your family experienced the tragedy in question. Acknowledge that this is a serious event that hurts people. Be especially careful if you’re publishing where you’re likely to be read by people directly affected by the tragedy.

3. Consider the timing

Writing about a tragedy as it unfolds is different from writing about it six months or even one week later. Feelings are most raw in the early days. You must balance these emotions against the fact that whatever you write—especially if you’re an analyst covering securities that are directly affected by the tragedy—may be most valuable in those early days.

4. Get a second opinion

Not sure how your piece will be perceived? Ask someone you trust and respect for feedback. You’ll get the most helpful feedback from someone in your target audience, especially if they’re candid.

Depending on their audience, you may decide that an event is too painful for them to read about at this point.

YOUR opinion?

How would YOU like financial authors to deal with tragic events in their writing? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and insights.

(By the way, I’d like to thank the participant in my presentation to the Baltimore CFA Society who asked the question that sparked this blog post.)


Photo Credit: mharrsch via Compfight cc


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Copyright 2014 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Free help for wordy writers!

Tuesday, Nov. 4th 2014

Wordiness is a curse. Long-winded writing obscures your meaning and scares off readers. However, many writers don’t realize that their writing is dragging on and on.

A free online tool—the Hemingway App—can help you recognize when your sentences are too long. Hemingway highlights sentences that are too long. It also suggests some ways to improve your writing. You could identify long sentences using your word processing software, but Hemingway is easier to use.

I’ll walk you through an example of how to use Hemingway.

Step. 1 Drop your text into the middle of the Hemingway page

Hemingway home page

This is the Hemingway home page. Your first step is to highlight and then delete the text in the middle column.

Entering your text into the Hemingway is a little more complicated than I expected, but it’s worth the effort. First, click to select all of the colored text in the middle column that starts with “Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.” Then, hit “delete.” You’ll see a blank space in the middle of your screen.

Next, either type or copy-paste in the text that you’d like to analyze. As soon as you drop in your text, Hemingway will analyze it.



Step 2. Look at Hemingway’s grade level analysisHemingway Grade 17

Look first at Hemingway’s overall rating of your text. The image to the right says the sample below is written at a grade 17 level. You may think, “Great! My clients are sophisticated, so aiming at a graduate-school level is fine.” Think again. Grade level measures how hard you’re making your reader work. Do you want your readers to struggle or to easily absorb your message?

Direct marketers aim for grade level eight. On its home page, Hemingway shows grade seven as “good.” You might be able to hit that level in a personal finance blog post, but it’s too hard for more formal financial communications that discuss technical topics. I figure I’m doing a good job if my client materials hit grade level 10.

Your grade level gives you a “big picture” indication of how hard you should work to simplify your writing.


Step 3.Review Hemingway’s assessment of your sentence length

Hemingway will color code your text according to its wordiness, as you’ll see in the example below. Red means a sentence is “very hard to read” because of length, as in the first sentence in the image below. Yellow isn’t as bad, but it’s also too long, as you can see in the sample paragraph’s second and third sentences.


Hemingway analysis of ECB sample








Step 4. Start simplifying

Hemingway also uses highlighting to suggest some simple fixes by using fewer adverbs and simpler words or eliminating the passive voice.Hemingway suggestions

Hemingway’s suggestions are just a starting point. Complex sentences require a re-thinking of the content. That’s what it took for me to go from the sample paragraph above to my rewrite below:

Prices of riskier investments rose in response to recent proposals by German and French leaders, but we are skeptical that this will continue. Investors seem to believe that the proposals will strengthen the euro zone by capping bond yields. This would make euro-zone bonds more attractive to private investors. However, success would require the European Central Bank (ECB) to use strong language or to boost its daily purchases of the troubled countries’ debt by at least €5 billion. To convince distrustful investors will require strong action. That may be more than the ECB can achieve.

If you’d like to learn more about shortening and simplifying your complex sentences, check out my publications and my presentations for do-it-yourself tips. I also edit materials, typically for larger firms with bigger budgets.


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E-book or white paper: which is better?

Tuesday, Oct. 28th 2014

“What’s the Difference between an E-book and a White Paper? (And When Should You Use Them?)” is the title of a chapter in Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, E-books, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman.

content rules ann hadley cc chapmanIt’s a great question. Sometimes what one person calls a white paper, another calls an e-book. I agree with the author’s statement that the main differences are in style and tone. A white paper is typically more formal and data-oriented. However, some people might call the exact same piece a white paper, while others call it an e-book.

The kind of e-book that Handley and Chapman discuss is, as they say:

  • “Broken into smaller chunks”
  • “Visually heavy main text is supplemented with callouts, bulleted lists”
  • “Casual and collegial; a conversation among equals”

In my opinion, you might lean towards a white paper if you have lots of original data and are addressing an audience that prefers a formal style and has an appetite for detailed analytical support of your statements.

On the other hand, an e-book (at least the kind of e-book created as a marketing tool, as described by the authors) might be better if you want to portray yourself as a friendly person who presents information in a way that’s easy for regular folks to absorb. An e-book will be less technical than a white paper. It may be better  for selling to consumers than businesses.

Personally, I prefer communications that combine the best of white papers and e-books as described above as they help their readers to solve a problem.

Your opinion?

How do you see the difference between white papers and e-books? I imagine that some of you have different opinions. For example, Chris Koch, editorial director at SAP, referred to “an e-Book, an insight-rich short slide deck” in “Don’t Kill the White Paper Just Yet” in Chief Content Officer (August 2014), p. 45.

Disclosure: If you click on the 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.


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Famous quotes make your commentary memorable

Tuesday, Oct. 21st 2014

It’s hard to make your investment commentary stand out. After all, everybody’s writing about the same facts. However, adept use of quotes can make investment commentaryyour commentary memorable.

For example, here’s how The Wall Street Journal’s “Ahead of the Tape” column started with a quote from the Bible (Matthew 20:16) on June 30, 2014:

Similarities between Scripture and financial markets are rare, but one verse seems to be a recurring theme: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

The writer, Spencer Jakab, explained the quote’s application in his column’s second paragraph.

Pundits and investors alike have a tendency to extrapolate the recent past into future expectations. That often is a recipe for disappointment.

The rest of the column discussed examples of Jakab’s theme. For example, commodities, which disappointed in 2013, were rebounding at the time of his article. Readers may remember Jakab’s quote—and the related lesson—long after they’ve forgotten which asset classes lag or outperform.

The column concluded by circling back to the Bible, saying “to everything there is a season,” a reference to a famous passage from Ecclesiastes. Nice symmetry there!


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Top posts from the third quarter of 2014

Thursday, Oct. 16th 2014

Check out my top posts from the last quarter!Top Posts

They’re a mix of practical tips on writing (#2, 4, and 10), email (#3), investment commentary (#5 and 8), and lessons I’ve learned from painful experience (#1 and 6). Two posts feature insights from guest experts (#7 and 9).

  1. How to market your self-published book: Lessons from my experience
  2. How to capitalize financial acronyms
  3. Email subject lines: How to handle boring disclosures
  4. Ssh, don’t tell my husband: A writing tip
  5. Tweet your quarterly investment commentary for more impact
  6. Tech tips for your educational webinar–Learn from my experience
  7. The silver bullet for attracting more readers <–Guest post by Joanne Cleaver
  8. 5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary
  9. Financial advisor blogging Q&A: Michael J. Evans
  10. It’s wrong to be right


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How and Why to use Sliding Pop-ups

Tuesday, Oct. 14th 2014

Email lists are a key part of online marketing for financial advisors—and for me, too. I was intrigued when advisor Dave Grant told me on Facebook that he was using a sliding pop-up with a chat function to get more mileage out of his website. His guest post below resulted from our discussion.

How and Why to use Sliding Pop-ups

By Dave Grant

Dave Grant headshotOne problem advisors have is building a credible email list in order to share their thoughts with a list of prospects to ultimately gain new business. The old way was meeting someone and then asking to add them to your mailing list. But in the age of more interaction online, you need a way to capture visitor information of those whom you may never meet in person. This is where pop-ups come in.

By offering a newsletter / free report / video series for visitors to your website, you can obtain their names and email addresses to add them to your list and, potentially, a drip marketing campaign. However, static opt-in boxes are often ignored, so how do you get that valuable information?

It may be time to use a pop-up. Pop-ups on websites can be annoying, but they have been proven by multiple marketing studies to increase visitor engagement through newsletter opt-ins because they are dynamic on the page. Instead of a pop-up in the middle of the screen, there is now an alternative that’s less annoying but still effective: the sliding pop-up.

Usually situated in the bottom left- or right-hand corner of a website, this box can transition in after a set period of time or when someone hits the end of the page, making readers notice the opt-in box. However, it’s not annoying like a traditional pop-up that blocks the reader’s view of the screen. When you use your company’s branding on these opt-in forms, they look like an extension of your site rather than a standard opt-in form. Many advisors find pop-ups increase their newsletter opt-in rates.

I’ve taken the pop-up one step further by adding a chat program.

While I still have static opt-in forms on throughout my site, I use the sliding pop-up on the bottom of my screen with a chat program. When people get to the end of an article, or after a set time period, the chat box slides up and I introduce myself with template text. From there, people can ask questions and interact with me in real time. Look at the image to see a screenshot of the initial view of my pop-up. Notice “Click here to get help” in the lower right-hand corner? That’s where you can start to chat with me.

finance for teachers

I’ve seen my conversations, not just opt-ins, with potential clients increase dramatically using this method. Now my website averages one good prospect conversation per week instead of the one per month I gained from the “Schedule an Appointment” button on my website.

If you’re wondering how to implement this strategy, there are many sliding pop-up options for advisors who use WordPress. You can download them as a plugin and adjust the wording yourself. To add your firm’s branding may require a web designer to write some code. Some options include AppSumo List Builder, Bounce Exchange, and OptIn Monster. There are also free options.

For my chat pop-up, I use ClickDesk. I like that it sends a chat transcript to my email once the chat closes.


Dave Grant, CFP(R) is the founder of Finance of Teachers, a fee-only financial planning firm in Cary, IL, serving teachers, primarily in Illinois. He is also a columnist for Financial Planning magazine, writing about issues facing Gen Y advisors. His recent book “The First Year” discusses the challenges of the first year of running his RIA, tips on how to be successful, and is available on Amazon KindleiBook, and through The Mercato.


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Boost your newsletter list’s power with this tip

Tuesday, Oct. 7th 2014
Nov 2013 newsletter page 1

Click to receive a free special report when you subscribe to my newsletters

If your newsletter is a good source of prospects who turn into clients, this tip can help you boost its effectiveness. Contact people who land on your “bounce” list when your newsletter stops reaching them. Your message is a gentle reminder of your availability. Plus, updating their email addresses means you’ll still be in touch with them once they feel a pressing need for your services or products.

I have at least one client whom I can directly attribute to this practice. A newsletter subscriber introduced me to the key people at his firm when the firm finally had a need for my services. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked for the subscriber’s new email address after my newsletter bounced back from his email address at his previous job.

Another reason to follow up on bounces is because bounces hurt your email address’ reputation. This can reduce the deliverability of your emails.

Here’s a process you can follow:

  1. Assess why the email bounced. If an email bounced because the recipient’s inbox is full—and the bounce is a one-time event—you can wait to follow up. If your emails have been bouncing for awhile, it’s worth following up.
  2. Look at the individual’s LinkedIn profiles. If an individual has changed jobs, it’s obvious that you need a new email address. If there’s no change, it may be that the firm’s service provider is blocking your messages for some reason. Perhaps because your newsletters seem spammy or it doesn’t like your newsletter service provider. Sometimes I suggest that people re-subscribe from a personal email address, rather than battle their technology providers.
  3. Contact the person via a LinkedIn message, if you’re connected. You could try the email address in your database, but that so rarely works that I’ve given up trying that. Now I go straight to LinkedIn. I usually use a subject line along the lines of “May I update your email address?” I keep the body of the message short: “You subscribed to my Investment Writing newsletter, but it has been bouncing. May I update your email address?
  4. Try other methods if you’re not connected on LinkedIn. You can use LinkedIn InMail to contact people with whom you’re not connected, if you have a Premium account or pay a fee. You could also contact the individuals with a LinkedIn connection request, mentioning your newsletter. Or, you can go the firm’s website to see if you can figure out the person’s email address or use a contact form to reach them.
  5. Update your e-newsletter list. This means inputting new email addresses and removing the email addresses of people who don’t respond or who ask to be removed.


Follow these steps and you’ll boost your email deliverability and maybe even land some new business.


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Copyright 2014 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Plain language: Let’s get parenthetical

Tuesday, Sep. 30th 2014

Plain language makes your documents more appealing and easier to understand. But circumstances may require you to use jargon. For example, you may be a financial marketer or professional working for bosses or Book between bookendsdepartments that insist on using technical or unfamiliar terms.

You can help reader comprehension by explaining the term in the sentence where it first appears. Parenthetical explanations are useful, whether you literally enclose the explanation in parentheses or set it off using some other technique.

Here’s a good example from The Wall Street Journal (June 28-29, 2014), p. A2:

“We are in a Goldilocks-like age at the moment,” said asset manager Jack Flaherty, referring to markets perceived as not too hot and not too cold—just right.

Goldilocks is a colorful image for readers who grew up with the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. However, it has a specific meaning in a financial context, so it demands explanation. Otherwise, the reader may wonder if “Goldilocks-like” refers to folks who wander into other people’s houses or try out different beds.

Option 1. Explain technical terms between commas

One classic approach to explaining technical terms is to use the term and then add an explanation that’s set off between commas. Here are examples:

  • “And the duration of the index, a measure of how sensitive bond prices are to changes in yield, has risen to seven years from 5.8.”—WSJ (June 30, 2014), p. C6
  • “Much of the focus on the ‘Volcker rule,’ which bans most speculative trading by banks, has been on how it forced them to rein in trading desks.”—WSJ (July 1, 2014), p. C12
  • “Foremost is free cash flow, or what is left over to reward shareholders after investment needs have been met.”—WSJ (July 2, 2014), p. C1

By the way, I’m using examples from The Wall Street Journal to combat the idea that your sophisticated readers will be insulted if you explain technical terms to them. Plenty of very smart investment professionals read The Wall Street Journal daily. I’ve never seen one throw it aside in disgust with its style of writing.

Option 2. Put the plain language first

Another approach is to start with the plain language and then add the technical term or nickname, as in the examples below:

  •  “The Australian dollar, also known as the Aussie, has risen 6.5% against the year, making it the second-best-performing major currency after the New Zealand dollar.”—WSJ (July 2, 2014), p. C4 — This is an example of introducing the less familiar term parenthetically.
  •  “David Einhorn of the hedge fund Greenlight Capital recently observed that some companies he is betting against—or selling short, in Wall Street parlance — have become the targets of takeovers, even though, in his view, they have significant weaknesses.”—The New York Times (August 8, 2014)

Option 3. Avoid using the technical term

When possible, it’s great to avoid using the technical term. I bet nine out of 10 financial experts would have used the term “spread” in the following sentence: “Investors have flocked to the $1.6 trillion junk-bond market in recent years, attracted by the income the bonds paid above debt perceived as safer issued by investment-grade companies at a time of historically low interest rates.”—The Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2014)

By the way, if you need help talking your executives into using plain language, check out my MarketingProfs article on “Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing” (registration required).

Avoid this option: Enclose the explanation in parentheses

Did you expect me to recommend the use of actual parentheses? I didn’t find any good examples of parentheses usage in The Wall Street Journal. Actual parentheses can be distracting, as explained in “Better writing without parentheses,” by my friend Harriett Magee.


Photo Credit: Caro’s Lines via Compfight cc


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5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary

Tuesday, Sep. 23rd 2014

Investment commentary authors often know the markets well, but lack writing and editing expertise. After all, they’re earning big bucks to manageinvestment commentary money, not to write. You don’t want me to run your portfolio, but I’ve learned some lessons about how to edit investment commentary. I’ve edited and written commentary for a diverse group of clients.

My experience has inspired this list of steps for anyone who’d like to edit investment commentary or other articles.

Step 1. Analyze overall structure

Before you dig into the details of your commentary, look at its overall structure. Your analysis may lead you to delete or move entire sections to make the structure more reader-friendly.

First, identify the main themes of your commentary. You may decide after a quick reading that your themes are something like the following:

  1. This was a volatile quarter, due mainly to disappointing corporate earnings and instability in the Middle East.
  2. Corporate earnings are likely to recover for three reasons.
  3. Instability in the Middle East will continue and here’s how it affects our investing.
  4. Here’s why these six stocks are the portfolio’s biggest winners or losers for the quarter.

If a simple read-through doesn’t identify your main themes, you can try mind mapping your commentary’s content. I sometimes use mapping when editing complex client documents. Mapping gives me a bird’s eye perspective that helps me spot clustering of ideas that form themes. For more on mapping, please see my book Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

Once you’ve identified the themes, delete any paragraphs that aren’t relevant. Also, move your paragraphs so your argument builds in a logical order.

Step 2. Provide guideposts for your readers

Once you’ve identified your commentary’s themes, you can make it easy for your readers to absorb them. Three key tools are your title, introduction, and headings. Each of these components should manage your readers’ expectations.

Titles should communicate your main topic. Simply writing “Third Quarter Review” isn’t enough. It doesn’t distinguish this quarter’s review from all that preceded it. Nor does it distinguish your review from your competitors’. At a minimum, name your main topic in your subject line. For example, “Third Quarter Rocked by Earnings and Middle East Conflict.”

As for your introduction, I believe in having it say exactly what you’ll cover. This lets your readers quickly assess whether your commentary interests them.

Next, use your headings as milestones for your commentary. Express your opinion or conclusion, if possible. For example, instead of using “corporate earnings” as your heading, consider something like “corporate earnings disappoint, but rebound likely.”

Step 3. Work within paragraphs

Once you’ve completed your “big picture” edits, dig into your individual paragraphs. Strong topic sentences will ensure that today’s busy readers can skim what you read, using their quick scan to zero in on the content that most interests them.

A strong topic sentence covers the paragraph’s main point. Everything that follows in a specific paragraph should relate to the topic sentence. If not, then cut it. This isn’t the only correct way to write, but it’s the best way to write for online readers and readers suffering from information overload.

For more on this topic, read my blog post about the first-sentence check.

Step 4. Examine your individual sentences

The next step is to make what professionals call “line edits.” This means correcting and improving your sentences for grammar, punctuation, vocabulary choices, and other issues in your writing style.

Working down to small items from a “big picture” items is efficient. It means that you don’t waste time improving your word choices in a sentence or paragraph that you ultimately cut from your draft.

Step 5. Proofread and check statistics

Once you’ve completed your editing, it’s time to proofread. I’ve blogged in “5 proofreading tips for quarterly investment reports” about my best proofreading tips. Also, check the accuracy of your statistics, such as index returns. If possible, get someone else to proofread your work. After you’ve lived with a document for awhile, it becomes hard to spot errors that would smack you in the face on a first reading.

If you follow these five steps, you’ll attract more readers. That’s your goal, right?


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Copyright 2014 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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