Financial Writing: A Love Story

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I never imagined I’d be a financial writer. The writing part… of that, there was no doubt. For a long time, I thought my future lay in fiction writing. Then in college, I studied journalism, focusing on investigative reporting and later, film criticism. But chance and opportunity converged, and the financial world came into focus for me.

After coming to New York City, I accepted a corporate job at a major accounting firm (a freelance film critic has to pay the bills somehow!), writing for in-house and client publications. In that role, I had the opportunity to speak with experts about economics and the financial markets, tax law and balance sheet analysis, mergers and acquisitions, and a host of other things. The work gave me a powerful lens through which I saw the financial world in big, broad, exciting terms. I fell in love with it.

I decided to immerse myself in finance, especially the investment business, earning securities licenses as well as the Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA®) designation. I’ve never looked back.

As a financial writer, I get to learn all the time. Regulatory issues, advanced investment techniques, innovative strategies—these are just some subjects I’ve had the pleasure of exploring. For example, I didn’t know water investing existed until I wrote a white paper for a new mutual fund. In writing for regulatory shareholder reports, I’ve become familiar with complex derivative-driven fixed income strategies.

I have the opportunity to take a deeper dive. For instance, I read the CFA Institute’s Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS®) before writing a white paper about GIPS® compliance. For an article about the benefits of investing in high-yield bonds, I talked to a financial advisor and a Notre Dame finance professor to get their views on the asset class.

I have the chance to partner with thought leaders. For example, I had the privilege of helping a leading academic prepare a submission to the Department of Labor on the retirement savings crisis, which involved interviews with behavioral finance experts about tactics that could help solve the problem. I worked with the CEO of a leading ETF company to write a series of blog posts.

One of the biggest rewards is of my financial writing life is creating understanding for people who don’t live and breathe the business—and amazingly, even for some of those who do. As I write, especially about esoteric concepts, I put myself in the reader’s shoes so I can frame the story and give it meaning. This makes me a valuable resource for asset managers, marketing departments, shareholder communication teams, as well as the consulting and design firms that work with them. For instance, I took a dense academic article on funding-ratio risk and turned it into a white paper that was more assessible to my client’s target audience—institutional investors.

So I’ve followed what I loved. And it’s taken me places I could never have imagined, with every new project another opportunity to explore the world of finance and investments. I think the best still lies ahead.

Ode to a Typewriter

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Smith Corona, Father’s boon companion
when he, with GI Bill, was college bound.
Lent to daughter, helping her to fashion
stories, poems, essays—a proving ground
of steel and ink for writerly pursuits.
A steadfast ally as she sought her voice,
first in struggle, then accomplishment.
Today, this sweet reminder of my roots,
sits near at hand. I see it and rejoice
for Dad, who was for me so provident.

Yes and !

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person in hatThere is no one way to write a piece, be it an article, a white paper or anything else. Some writers work from a numbered outline, others from index cards. For years, I started with the conclusion, but lately I’ve been focusing on the introduction. I know writers who have to have their title first. Others jump right in, getting the core elements nailed down before anything else.

Whatever the preferred approach, every writer gets bogged down from time to time. I’ve found that the more tightly I hold onto a certain turn of phrase, the more doggedly I hang onto a lead paragraph, the more likely I am to become anxious and frustrated. To break free, I’ve turned to lessons learned in improv comedy workshops.

Improvisation—or “improv”—is a form of theater much of which is created on the fly, fueled by the exchanges of participants. It is sometimes used in business to help improve face-to-face communication, foster creative problem solving, and encourage teamwork. I employ improvisational techniques to enhance my ability to connect with readers and write copy that resonates.

Say “yes, and…” In this cardinal rule of improv, a participant must accept what’s said and build upon it. In my writing life, this means accentuating the positive. When countering an opposing view or the conventional wisdom, it can be tempting to “go negative.” When you accept a conflicting viewpoint, recognizing that some people embrace it, you can be more effective at making a case for the other side.

Listen. Improvisation demands active listening. To create a scene, you and your partner must concentrate on what the other says. In my writing, this means putting myself in the reader’s shoes. Before I write a single word, I profile my target audience, creating a representative individual I can keep in my mind’s eye as I work. For example, for an article about rising medical costs, I wrote thinking of a couple on the cusp of retirement, who were unaware of how big a bite health care could take out of their nest egg.

Add history. In improv, this means to create context. I consider it essential to good writing. Construct a framework, lead readers where you want them to go, and make sure they are able to recognize themselves and their situation. The pieces you produce should help people solve problems, respond to challenges, and move forward.

Less is better. In improv, silence often allows circumstances to reveal themselves. When writing, then, don’t bury readers in information. Try to keep the piece as concise as possible, while focusing on the issues that matter most. Learn to recognize when you’ve said enough.

Be specific. You build a scene in improv comedy by providing information that your partner can put to use. In my writing life, this means getting to the point. Don’t save the best for last!  Lead with what’s most important. Give readers what they need to gain understanding or to make the best possible decision. For instance, in a white paper that examined the problems with conventional asset allocation strategies, I sought ways to articulate—in real-life terms and backed by data—how a different investment approach would improve outcomes for investors.

Improvisational techniques have a valuable role to play in the writing process. I think they’ve made me a better writer. They certainly help me keep projects on track as I work to make strong and powerful impressions for my clients. Yes, and … they can do that for you too.

Comma Now, It’s a Question of Style

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commathumbWe writers have strong feelings about grammar and usage. The question of serial commas, for example, tends to generate a lot of heat. (So do hyphens, split infinitives, and contractions. But we’ll leave those for another time…)

The serial, or “Oxford,” comma is a comma placed immediately before a conjunction in a series of three or more words. For example, a list of three securities can be punctuated as “corporate bonds, high yield bonds, and bank loans” (using a serial comma) or as “corporate bonds, high yield bonds and bank loans” (without a serial comma).

Two of my clients have opposing views. One believes passionately in the serial comma because it “avoids confusion,” while the other says it is “redundant.” Style manuals differ as well. The Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage are against the serial comma, and The Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford Guide to Style require it.

Arguments against Serial Commas

  • They are redundant. The connecting conjunction, such as “and” or “or,” signals a separation between the final two items in a series, making a serial comma unnecessary.
  • They increase clutter. Serial commas take up space in a block of text. “Commas are not condiments,” wrote Keith Waterhouse in Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, “Do not pepper sentences with them unnecessarily.”

Arguments for Serial Commas

  • They add clarity. A serial comma separates a series of words, while avoiding the implication that the last two items have a stronger connection than they do. A famous example is an apocryphal book dedication, which does not contain the serial comma: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” This construction suggests that Ayn Rand and God are the author’s parents.
  • They mark a pause. Serial commas make written language match the cadence of human speech, improving readability.

I favor serial commas because they reduce ambiguity. They make sentences easier to read by making clear the relationship between the components of a list. Within an organization, I also think they keep everyone on the same page. No one has to determine when a serial comma is necessary (because sometimes they are). In my experience, many people are not skilled at making these calls.

Whatever you decide to do, I believe it’s important to establish and maintain an organizational style guide to encourage consistency. Your colleagues – and your readers – will thank you for it.

(Un)Block and Tackle

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womanandlettersthumbI don’t believe in writer’s block. When people say they are blocked, I think they are saying: “This is hard and I don’t want to do it.”

With the latter statement, I have no quarrel. The writing process can be so challenging and so frustrating that we want to do just about anything else. Alden Wood, former columnist for The Ragan Report, called this condition “typochondria,” saying it would drive you to sharpen all your pencils and afterwards pick lint off your carpet.

I like to play with my cats.

But this is just procrastination. Meanwhile, “writer’s block” has become an all-purpose excuse for not getting on with it. Dictionary makers even suggest it is some kind of mental illness. (It is not, by the way, represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.) Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” The Cambridge Dictionaries say that it is “the condition of being unable to create a piece of written work because something in your mind prevents you from doing it.” With apologies to the writers of dictionaries (and as readers of this blog know, I love dictionaries), these definitions only obscure the truth.

Writing is a struggle. It requires discipline and perseverance. You must be willing to continue despite numerous false starts and be ready to abandon prose you love if you find yourself down a blind alley. That’s why it is important to have a writing process that supports you, one that gives you what you need to tackle the work – even when the going gets tough.

  • Stick to a regular routine. With rare exceptions, I sit down at my computer at the same time Monday through Friday. I have an established work day, with time for lunch and exercise. And yes, time to play with my cats.
  • Dedicate concentrated periods of time to particular projects. I block time on my calendar – two hours to churn out a rough draft, for example. Sometimes it’s easier to keep going when you know you have a set time to stop.
  • Prime the pump. Create a list of questions you can answer to help you jumpstart the writing process. For example: What is this piece about? What it is trying to accomplish? What do we want readers to do in response?
  • Write and write and write. I keep typing even when I’m not sure what to say next. When I get stuck for a word, I type the two letters “bl” – my spellchecker is set to recognize it as “blah blah blah” – and just keep going. As novelist Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
  • Accept yourself. We all have our personal demons. When the work isn’t going well, I feel like I’m lost in a forest so dark and dense that I’ll never find my way out. I always have this fear at some stage in the process. By acknowledging it, I reduce its hold on me.

So I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I do believe in the writing process – my writing process, that is. It keeps me on track until I find my groove. And then writing is … well, unadulterated joy.

In Search of the Right Word

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MR15-04(102).jpgThe right word in the right place. That’s the goal of every writer. But sometimes, the right word is elusive, ethereal, at the edge of perception. I squint into the middle distance, trying to catch a glimpse. Seldom am I successful.

So I turn to an old friend – the dictionary. The dictionary has helped me find the right words since I was a youngster. (Yes, even when I didn’t know how to spell them.) Later, I invested in a 20-pound Merriam-Webster, which I purchased with one of my first corporate paychecks.

And yet – perhaps because we writers are a solitary lot – I was unaware that others were as devoted to the dictionary as I was. It’s not like dictionaries come up in conversation all that often. But recently, I saw one of John McPhee’s essays on the writing process, published in The New Yorker, in which he discussed the relative merits of thesauruses and dictionaries, coming down squarely on the side of the latter. He said when he looks up words to see how the dictionary defines them, it leads him to a better word.

I favor the dictionary for similar reasons, particularly when comes to initial word choice. In that department, the thesaurus – a collection of synonyms, defined as “one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses” – is an imperfect source. It does not tell me what a word means. With a dictionary, I can really get to know a word and in considering its definitions and usages, find the right word. Often, I learn something new about words I thought I knew well. (The thesaurus, however, is a terrific resource when I need a synonym to reduce repetition.)

My dictionary of choice these days is no longer a 20-pound tome. It is a website of dictionaries – One Look Dictionary Search (, which gives me access to a lot of different dictionaries. Believe it or not, definitions vary from dictionary to dictionary. Another great reference is Library Spot (, a free virtual library resource center.

The search can be exhilarating. But the real buzz comes when I get that bolt of insight. As Mark Twain said: “The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning-bug & the lightning.”

Word Peeves 2

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PuzzledWhat’s with all the prepositions?

A preposition is supposed to work in combination with a noun or a pronoun to create phrases that modify verbs, nouns, pronouns or adjectives. When used as part of a phrase, they “convey a spatial, temporal or directional meaning.”*

They can be essential. For example: I will carry on despite these problems. I will stand up to a bully. Without “on” or “up,” these sentences wouldn’t make much sense. They certainly wouldn’t convey your meaning.

In other situations, a preposition is completely unnecessary. Despite that fact, they are being “added in” all over the place – even when “add” alone would suffice. And why does one ever have to say “subtract out?” “Subtract” says it all in one package.

But among the various examples of prepositional overreach, I consider “separate out” the most egregious. It is a silly concoction, simultaneously pompous, cumbersome, and superfluous.

Consider the meanings of the transitive verb “separate:”

  1. to set or keep apart.
  2. to make a distinction between.
  3. to sort.
  4. to disperse in space or time.

Now let’s put those definitions to work. You can separate your kids to keep them from fighting. You can separate apples from oranges when you want to make a distinction between types of fruit. You can sort your paperclips by separating the larger from the smaller. You can be separated from the person you love by time or distance. But you never, ever have to separate anything “out.”

So let’s keep prepositions in their place. I think the English language will be the better for it.

*Purdue Online Writing Lab.

Empowering Email

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emailimageWe send and receive a lot of email in the business world – an average of 100 messages a day in 2013, according to market research firm The Radicati Group. No surprise, that number is expected to rise. Radicati predicts the number of business emails to increase by 7 to 8 every year between 2013 and 2017.*

For some people, the volume is overwhelming. One senior executive told me that she receives about 1,000 emails a day. Some of that email is extraneous (no kidding!) – the “thank you” and “okay” messages many people send as acknowledgments. Others are the result of the Reply All button, sometimes essential to use and then again, sometimes not. But many of these emails contain necessary information.

How do you break through the clutter? How do you make it easier for the people you’re emailing to understand what you want or need from them? As a financial writer, I found it essential to answer these questions. So I have developed a few techniques that help me communicate more effectively by email, get the attention of the people I need to reach, and organize information to make it easy for them to respond.

  • Be specific in the subject line. For example: “By noon Friday: Review attached white paper.” Now your recipient can prioritize your request.
  • Change the subject line. In an email string, the topic can sometimes shift. When it does, update the subject line so that recipients know another issue is under discussion.
  • Highlight critical information, such as a deadline, using boldface and/or italics. Make it pop.
  • Use bullet points to organize information efficiently. When you have a number of details to cover, bullet points can help readers follow your train of thought.
  • Provide the crucial details. If the email recipient has to meet a deadline, specify the date and time. If you want them to attend a meeting “on Thursday,” provide the date to eliminate confusion or send them a meeting invitation. More specifics = less follow-up emails on both sides.
  • Say what you need. If you need an acknowledgement, ask for one. In some cases, you may want to say that “no response is necessary.”

Email is a powerful tool that helps me in my work every single day and is most effective when communication is clear and uncluttered. Deleting or archiving the completed string is particularly satisfying.

*Email Statistics Report, 2013-2017 by The Radicati Group, Inc.

Taking the Bite out of Deadlines

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time concept in business with an alarm clock and businesswomanIf variety is the spice of the writing life – and I believe it is – then deadlines are a staple. As a financial writer, I get to work on all sorts of projects, ranging from white papers and marketing collateral to regulatory shareholder reports and web-based articles. Every one of them has a deadline. My clients depend on me to deliver well-written copy by specific due dates. A delay on my part can have a profound effect on their schedules.

So I take deadlines very seriously. Some of my clients might even tell you I am fanatical about them. That’s why years ago I set up a structure to help me manage and meet my deadlines.

Not that I can control everything. Outside events often have an impact on how quickly or efficiently my work is completed. A key contact is unexpectedly out of the office, for example. Or, there is a glitch in a performance reporting system that delays attribution. Though such impediments can be anxiety-producing, I focus on managing what I can and thereby keep things moving forward.

Here are some of the staples of my “deadline survival system.”

  • A desktop calendar on which I list every deadline for every project. I can see at a glance where I stand.
  • Project folders that put critical information at my fingertips. When time is of the essence, I have easy access to process and style guidelines, important data and the phone numbers of key contacts.
  • A staging area where I can sort through notes, research, attribution, etc. Because these things are close at hand, I can facilitate the creation of outlines and rough drafts.
  • Custom email templates, laboriously created, but which now allow me to expedite requests for information and submit drafts for review.
  • Prep work, especially for quarterly commentaries and shareholder reports. By conducting advance research and writing boilerplate copy, I can get a head start on these projects before period end.

Over the years, I have found that these tools and tactics, combined with discipline, have helped me survive, thrive, and serve my clients well. And that’s a good measurement of success.

In Praise of the Telephone

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PhoneFotoliathumbEmail has its place. But whenever possible, I prefer to use the telephone. Indeed, the telephone is one of the best business tools I know.

First, it can boost efficiency. In my experience, it can take more time to compose a message than it can take to talk in “real time” on the telephone. And when it comes to keeping projects on track, a phone call often gets me the answers I need quickly.

Second, the phone breaks what I like to call the “email chain of misunderstanding.” No matter how carefully we construct an email, it can still be misinterpreted, leading us to work on the wrong priorities. Some emails are difficult to decipher, which triggers multiple email messages as we seek clarification. With a single phone call, we can eliminate ambiguity.

Third, the phone has been irreplaceable in helping me build long-lasting, supportive relationships. I have clients I’ve never met in person but with whom I have worked for more than a decade. The phone has allowed us get to know each other. I’ve learned about their working styles and priorities, the way they speak, and the subtleties that just don’t translate to email. The real-time conversations we’ve had have helped us forge deeper connections.

That said, I use email daily. I send writing pieces to clients for review, respond to questions, and set appointments. I find email particularly useful for projects that require a “paper trail” – such as a discussion about portfolio performance for a regulatory shareholder report.

But for direct and immediate interaction, I prefer the telephone. I’d be happy to tell you more. Just give me a call.