My five favorite reference books for writers

Tuesday, Apr. 21st 2015

A printed book is sometimes the best place to find a solution to your question about writing style, punctuation, or grammar.

Here are my five favorite reference books.

  1. Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson. Everyone should own this small, inexpensive, easy-to-use book. I use Part II, the back of the book, the most. It lists troublesome words in alphabetical order. It’ll help you cut pretentious words and resolve problems such as deciding between “which” and “that.” Part I describes and offers solutions to problems common in everyday writing. Buy it today!
  2. Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities. This fat classic from 1974 is my second “go to” reference book when I’m flummoxed by a question of style, punctuation, or grammar. I go straight to the index to look for the word or type of problem. The book is aimed at individuals preparing manuscripts for publication.
  3. The Chicago Manual of Style was my favorite reference book for many years. It’s the most academic of the books on this list. You can also subscribe online to the manual and follow it on Facebook or Twitter.
  4. The Associated Press Stylebook. If you’ve ever heard an editor say, “We follow AP style,” they’re talking about the print or online edition of this style book. There’s even an iPhone app for this guide. If you’re geeky enough–like me–to consider owning multiple style guides, you may enjoy the sarcastic, not-to-be-trusted FakeAPStylebook Twitter account, in addition to the Twitter account of the real thing.
  5. The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas. This book gives plain English explanations of vexing issues of grammar and more.

Honorable mention

If you’re passionate about good writing, you’ve probably got a favorite reference that I’ve overlooked. Please tell me about it.

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Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in communication, grammar, punctuation, spelling, writing | 16 Comments »

Plurals: your best friend for gender-neutral financial writing

Tuesday, Apr. 14th 2015

Do you routinely refer to members of your target audience as “he” when you write? If so, you’re probably offending some of your readers. Your use of plural nouns can help you broaden your appeal.

Singular nouns are tough

Let’s assume you’re writing a white paper about teachers who are planning for retirement. You open your draft with “A teacher faces three main challenges in preparing for retirement.” However, eventually you’ll need to substitute a pronoun for “teacher” or your readers will suffer from “teacher” overload.

To write in a gender-neutral way using traditional singular pronouns, you must write “she or he” or “he and she.” When this substitution occurs frequently, it can feel clunky and disrupt the flow of your text.

Some authors address this by alternating their use of “he” and “she.” However, this can confuse readers, making them think you’re discussing different people when you shift from pronoun to the other.

bad english book by ammon sheaAnother option is to use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. I’ve done this sometimes. I’m not alone in this. Here’s what Ammon Shea says in Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation.

The third-person neuter single (They or their when used to refer to a single person of either sex) was in common and accepted use until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and is showing signs of making a resurgence. It is, in my view, a fine option for those who do not wish to always refer to unnamed people as he. I have opted to use the gender-neutral they in the singular, except where to do so would provide a lack of clarity or euphony.

The problem with using “they” this way is that it offends the purists. As a result, it may distract some readers from your message. Distraction is bad, no matter what the cause. I sometimes rewrite sentences that are 100% correct because they may seem incorrect to readers who don’t know all the rules. Still, according to “Can We Take ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun?” more copyeditors are accepting “they” as singular.

Write about multiple people

You can get around the awkwardness of calling everyone “he” or using a singular “they.” Instead, write about multiple people.

This means you’ll write “Teachers face three main challenges in preparing for retirement” instead of “A teacher faces three main challenges in preparing for retirement.”

How do you write in a gender-neutral manner?

Do you think it’s important to write without favoring one gender over another? If you have tips on this topic, please share.

 

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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Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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How to prepare for your podcast interview

Tuesday, Apr. 7th 2015

You’ve been invited to be a guest on a podcast. How exciting! This could help you reach more members of your target audience. But, if you’re like me, excitement quickly turns to fear. Smart Professional Pointing You OutIn this post, I share what I learned when I prepared to be interviewed for a podcast.

1. Ask for the questions in advance

Some people can handle any questions gracefully without advance preparation. However, most of us do better with time to reflect.

Ask your interviewer to share questions in advance. It’s often not practical for interviewers to share a complete list. After all, your live interaction should inspire new questions. However, an initial list will help you to prepare.

2. Decide on your main messages

A big-picture strategy will focus your preparation and the comments you make during your live interview. That makes it easier on you. I like the tips in “Creating Your Message: A Seven-Part Series” by Brad Phillips on the Mr. Media Training blog.

Your listeners benefit, too. Your narrow focus makes it easier for them to learn from your interview, as you repeat and deepen their understanding of your message.

Have stories ready

Stories will make your message memorable. “A story can be your personal story, an anecdote, a case study, a historical example” or something else that makes your message more concrete. Mr. Media Training explains this in more detail in “Telling Powerful Stories.”

Prepare sound bites, not soliloquies

Sound bites—catchy phrases—make it easier for your listeners to absorb your message. I like how Mr. Media Training explains them in “Sizzling Sound Bites.” Also see “Ten Ways To Create Memorable Media Sound Bites.”

Another advantage of sound bites: They’re easier for you to remember. That’s helpful if you’re trying to speak without looking at notes.

Use statistics

Numbers that resonate with your listeners will increase your impact on your listeners. They’ll make you more memorable. Mr. Media Training’s “Don’t Use Numbers—Use Social Statistics” explains this.

Know your goals

Sure, you want to educate and maybe even entertain your podcast listeners. But you also have a bigger goal. Perhaps it’s to promote your book or interest people in your investment or wealth management services. Make sure you work that into your conversation.

If possible, ask your interviewer to mention your services or products in her or his introduction. If you have a freebie or other special offering, it’s good to mention that in the closing.

3. Prepare and test your technology

If podcasts aren’t a regular part of your routine, get comfortable with the technology before you’re interviewed.

At a minimum, test your technology in advance. For example, ahead of recording a podcast via Skype, I installed the latest version of Skype, tested and fixed the settings for the microphone that plugs into my PC, and had a friend call me via Skype. If I hadn’t done that, my interview might have been cancelled by my microphone problems.

4. Practice

Practice helps. At least, it helps if you’re a slow-thinking introvert like me. When I speak my answers out loud, I develop new ideas. Also, my words flow better in live interviews if I’ve mulled them over in advance.

However, I’ve learned to avoid memorizing answers word for word. That saps their energy. I do, however, type up some bullet points. Their availability calms me, even though I try not to look at them during live interviews.

As part of my preparation, I collected some techniques for gaining time to think about questions for which I wasn’t prepared:

  1. Say “That’s a great question.”
  2. Paraphrase or clarify the question.
  3. Say “I don’t know about that, but what I do know…”—this is a way to sidestep difficult questions or to get your interview back on your message.

5. Prepare your environment

On your interview day, do whatever you can to ensure you’re speaking in a calm, quiet environment. For example, turn off or mute any sources of disruptive noises. For my most recent podcast, I put my landline phone in “Do not disturb” mode and shut down Microsoft Outlook so a task reminder wouldn’t beep at a bad time.

6. Have fun!

Approach your podcast with good preparation and a positive attitude. With a good interviewer, you’re bound to have fun.

 

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Is plain English for financial dummies?

Tuesday, Mar. 31st 2015

“We don’t want our clients to think we’re dummies.” When I encourage my clients to use plain English, they sometimes push back. They’re afraid they’ll seem stupid.man thinking

I disagree. I think plain, clear writing shows respect for your client’s time. I’m not alone in my belief. Folks like investor Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and former SEC chair Arthur Levitt agree with me. So does The Wall Street Journal.

Warren Buffett on plain English

Here’s what Warren Buffett says:

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters…. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

Despite Buffett’s easy-to-understand style, plenty of financial sophisticates read his firm’s annual report.

By the way, Buffett’s quote comes from the SEC’s A Plain English Handbook, a great free resource.

Arthur Levitt on financial disclosures and language

Here’s former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt’s take on plain English:

For the language of financial disclosure, we need to raise the standard from “potentially understandable” to “impossible to be misunderstood.”

Take a few minutes to see if your writing passes “The Levitt test for financial risk disclosures.”

The Wall Street Journal

Almost every financial sophisticate in the U.S. reads The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper does a good job of making their content accessible to the less sophisticated. For some examples, see “Let’s get parenthetical.”

What about YOU?

What do YOU think about using plain English in your financial communications? What is one step you recommend to others who’d like to use plain English?

For more on plain English, see “Plain English and good writing.”

 

Image courtesy of ImageryMajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in writing | 7 Comments »

How to highlight text in emails

Tuesday, Mar. 24th 2015

When you write emails, plain text sometimes isn’t enough. You want to visually emphasize one piece of information, such as the proposed date and time of your phone call with the email tipsrecipient. While I discuss options below, I’m interested in your ideas. Please answer my poll on this topic. I’ll report on the results in a future issue of my e-newsletter.

Text choices

Let’s examine some options for tackling your challenge in the sentence “May I call you on Mon., Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. Eastern?”

  1. Use bold

May I call you on Mon., Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. Eastern?

  1. Underline

May I call you on Mon., Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. Eastern?

  1. Change font color

May I call you on Mon., Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. Eastern?

  1. Use highlighting

    Highlighting in yellow seems a little too showy to me.

    By the way, the text in the example below (and in number 5)  is extra-large because it’s a screenshot. I couldn’t figure out how to produce my example directly in WordPress.

Email_sample_with_yellow_highlighting

 

  1. Combine multiple techniques

    I like bold, but I feel as if my email program’s bold doesn’t stand out enough. I often increase the font size of my bolded text, as in the example below. 

    You can try your own combinations. I suggest that you avoid two techniques that are associated with hyperlinks: underlining and blue text.

Email_sample_with_bold_and_big_font

Plain-text email limitations

Your options are limited if you must use plain-text emails. However, you can capitalize the text that you want to emphasize:

May I call you on MON., FEB. 16, at 2 p.m. Eastern?

Bonus tips

Changing your fonts isn’t only for emphasizing a specific piece of information. You can also put the key information in your subject line, as in “2 p.m. call on Mon., Feb. 16?” If confirming that time is your email’s main goal, then repeat this in your email’s first sentence. Repeat the information in a heading, if you cover multiple topics in your email. For example, one heading could be “2 p.m. call on Mon., Feb. 16?” and the other one might be “401(k) plan next steps.”

What do YOU think?

Please take my poll on this topic. I’d like to learn about the techniques that you use. I’m also interested in what techniques annoy you. For example, one of my friends says she doesn’t like multiple font sizes because it throws off the alignment of the email’s lines.

Polls like this can influence my email practices. Before I ran the poll in “To ‘dear’ or not to ‘dear’ in your email,” I always started my emails with the recipient’s name, followed by a comma. My poll made me realize that starting emails with “Hi” and then the recipient’s name and a comma is widespread. While I still prefer the simplicity of “Susan,” now I try to notice other people’s preference for “Hi.” I reciprocate whenever I’m aware of their preference.

If you’d like to write better emails

I’m available to give presentations and workshops on “Writing Effective Emails.” I’ve spoken on this topic to the Financial Planning Association’s FPA Experience conference, FPA chapters, and corporate clients.

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Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in email | 2 Comments »

Should you correct other people’s writing mistakes?

Tuesday, Mar. 17th 2015

The quality of your writing affects what other people think of you. That’s a good reason to polish your writing. But what if you see errors in other people’s writing? Should you tell them errorif you’re not working as an editor? It depends. I pose four questions that can help you decide whether to act.

1. How serious is the error?

Some errors are more important than others. If a writer repeatedly refers to “portfolio mangers” instead of “portfolio managers,” that’s embarrassing. It also suggests a sloppiness that reflects poorly on the individual and whatever organization is publishing the piece in which the error appears.

2. Does the error make the writing difficult to understand?

Some errors make it hard for readers to grasp the writer’s message. I dislike this kind of error more than one that’s wrong, but can be glossed over by the reader.

For example, when a writer pens a garbled introduction followed by paragraphs that lack strong topic sentences, you know that readers will struggle. This kind of error is worthy of correction.

On the other hand, some things are widely viewed as errors are open to debate and don’t—in isolation—make a piece much harder to understand.

Take “irregardless,” one of the many “mistakes” that Shea Ammon tackles in Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. “One may not like this word, but that is far cry from it not being a word,” says Ammon.

If I saw one instance of “irregardless” in an otherwise well written piece, I wouldn’t tell the author unless I was wearing my editor’s hat. After all, most readers would grasp the meaning, even though the word has an extra syllable and, as Ammon concedes, “It is admittedly difficult to offer much by way of defense to the word irregardless.”

3. What’s your relationship with the writer?

Tread carefully if you lack a close relationship with the writer, particularly if they’re senior to you in your organization. A correction can sour your relationship. It’s not just senior folks whom you need to worry about. Many people are sensitive to correction.

4. Can you phrase your correction nicely?

Be nice when you make corrections. A classic suggestion is to criticize the writing, not the person. Nobody enjoys criticism, even when they know it’s on target.

I sometimes tell complete strangers when I spot typos in their LinkedIn profiles. I write something like, “I noticed a tiny typo in your LinkedIn profile. Your title is listed as ‘investment consutlant’ with the ‘l’ and the ‘t’ reversed. You might want to fix that.” I hope that they realize I’m contacting them because I want to help.

Another reason to phrase your corrections nicely: We all make mistakes. I know I do. I’ve featured many of my own mistakes on Mistake Monday on the Investment Writing Facebook page, where I challenge readers to identify mistakes in items that I post on Monday mornings.

By the way, if you spot errors in my work, please tell me. I’ll be grateful.

If you’re working in an editorial role

Correct as much as you can, if you’re working in an editorial role. However, you may not be able to insist on the implementation of  all of your corrections. Consider my four questions as you decide how to respond to the writer’s resistance to your changes.

 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in writing | No Comments »

RIA blogs recommended by my Twitter friends

Tuesday, Mar. 10th 2015

Looking for good blogs by registered investment advisors or financial advisors? An impromptu Twitter exchange in February yielded the following recommendations, with thanks to Susan's tweet about RIA blogs@QuonWarrene for providing the first reply to my question:

You’ve probably seen some of these names on my blog before, in the following posts:

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in blog | 3 Comments »

Should you link to others in your blog?

Tuesday, Mar. 3rd 2015

complete guide to article writingIf your blog focuses solely on your own content, perhaps it’s time to change. Consider incorporating links to other people’s content.

High quality links reflect positively on you. “…The ability to aggregate really strong links helps bloggers’ credibility,” as Sara Quinn says in Naveed Saleh’s The Complete Guide To Article Writing. A section of Saleh’s book, which aims at aspiring journalists, inspired this post.

1. Help your readers

Links to good resources help your readers by explaining things in detail that isn’t appropriate for a blog post. Links can also address concerns relevant only to a small subset of your readers. You avoid alienating your mainstream readers, while satisfying the appetites of the few.

I often link to articles to give examples of the points that I make in my blog posts.

2. Provide attribution

It’s not nice to quote someone’s words without giving them credit. These days it isn’t enough to simply name them, if a relevant link is available.

However, a link alone doesn’t give you free rein to use other people’s material. Check out the resources for understanding “fair use” in my blog post, Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion. By the way, the “Legal danger” post is a good example of enhancing credibility to linking to resources.

What’s your policy?

Do YOU link to resources outside your blog or corporate website? What’s your rationale for your policy? I enjoy 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 only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

______________________________________________________________________

Learn to write better! Hire Susan to critique your writing or buy Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

 
Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in blog | 2 Comments »

That vs. which: Which is right?

Tuesday, Feb. 24th 2015

Writers often use “which” when they should use “that.” The reverse is also true. It took me a while to learn this myself. This post offers some guidance on your choices.which vs. that

The “That” rule

“That” is for essential clauses. The sentence doesn’t make sense without the clause.

Take a sentence like the following:

Inflation that rises rapidly may hurt bond prices more than gradual inflation.

Omit “that rises rapidly” and you get “Inflation may hurt bond prices more than gradual inflation.” Does that make sense? No! Thus, “that” is required to reflect the presence of an essential clause.

The “Which” rule

“Which” is for nonessential clauses and requires at least one comma.

Consider the following example:

Inflation was rising rapidly, which was inflicting pain on bond holders.

Delete “which was inflicting pain on bond holders” and you still have a sentence that makes sense: “Inflation was rising rapidly.”

 The British exception

The British have different rules for the use of “which” and “that.” As Shea Ammon states in Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, they use both for essential clauses. However, they agree with Americans on using “which” for nonessential clauses.

 

For another take on which vs. that, read my post “The Which Trials” according to “Woe is I.” That post also contains links to more resources on which vs. that.

 

Note: The title of post was edited on Feb. 24, 2015, when I learned that “that” and “which” may not be considered pronouns in this context.

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Learn to write better! Hire Susan to critique your writing or buy Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

 
Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in writing | 2 Comments »

Should your investment commentary be different?

Tuesday, Feb. 17th 2015

“Should your investment commentary present a distinctive point of view?” That’s the great question posed by a participant in one of my presentations on “How To Write Investment 3Cs of investment commentary InvestmentWritingCommentary People Will Read.”

My answer? It depends.

What is the distinctive point of view?

If a distinctive point of view means ideas that hold their own vs. leading investment strategies, that’s easier said than done. Not everyone can be an original thinker.

Another challenge: Competing with top investment strategists may also require access to world-class data to support your contentions. That may be tough if you’re at a small company with limited resources.

On the other hand, ideas aren’t the only way to distinguish yourself. You can stand out with the way you express your ideas, instead of the actual content of your commentary. Perhaps you show some personality or you’re an elegant or humorous writer.

Your audience matters

Investment commentary that displays thought leadership appeals to some audiences more than others.

For example, if you sell your firm’s tactical asset allocation services, readers will care about the originality and accuracy of how you assess markets. In short, thought leadership matters if it is an important part of your appeal as an investment manager.

Some readers won’t care whether your ideas are original or common. This is particularly true of individual investors. I believe they’d rather know that you understand them and their needs. In their case, investment commentary explaining how a recent event or trend affects their portfolio may be more powerful than groundbreaking commentary on the stock market.

What do YOU think?

I’m curious to learn your thoughts on this topic. Please comment.

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Learn to write better! Hire Susan to critique your writing or buy Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

 
Copyright 2015 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved

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Posted by Susan Weiner, CFA | in marketing, writing | 6 Comments »