Lessons of an Anonymous Financial Writer

Broke, jobless, with a child on the way — I became a financial writer out of desperation. Some people start writing about money in hopes of becoming a kind of finance guru; some do it in hopes of attracting new clients to their advisory business. I just wanted a paycheck.

What I earned though was worth a lot more.

After a decade living in Chicago working in advertising and public relations, I moved back to my hometown of Detroit when my wife was offered a job. I had no such luck. Communications and copywriting jobs were few, and callbacks fewer. The bad news was that I burned through my savings; the good news was that we were expecting a baby. As I began to choke down my pride and join the overqualified proles of my generation slinging pumpkin-spiced lattes, an investment management firm contacted me about a writing role in its marketing department.

Part of the interview process involved writing a sample article on bonds, which I knew nothing about, and which I’ve come to learn, many mom-and-pop investors don’t either. On the precipice of missing another month’s rent, I had to make bonds, in all their misunderstood maturity-coupon-yielding glory, sound interesting.

I got the job.

Since then, I’ve written financial marketing content — blogs, e-books, guides and whitepapers — for two different RIAs, taking advantage of our sensitivity to storytelling and propensity to reward helpful information. I soon became enamored with the intersection of money in everything, especially human behavior. And, I started to write about money less for the paycheck, and more because I liked it.

But here’s the thing. All these years I have mostly written anonymously under a brand name. A nameless writer, writing under the shadow of a company blog.

William Zinsser famously wrote:

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

As egotists, most writers would become disheartened to write without their name attached to their work. I have felt that way many times. Yet the experience isn’t one I will ever regret. From this perspective — to only write as a we and never an I — I gained a greater understanding of a writer’s obligation and the purpose of a writer’s work. I don’t think I would have earned the same insight if I were trying to make a name of myself.

These are the most important lessons I’ve learned as an anonymous financial writer. Hopefully, they can help others like me writing in anonymity.

Lesson #1: The role of the writer is to develop the reader’s voice.

When writing for a business, the process of developing your own style or voice is secondary. You’re not as concerned about differentiating yourself among other writers.

Instead, you’re focused on writing in a way readers can easily digest an idea or system. In other words, a good writer develops the reader’s voice on an unfamiliar subject. A good writer helps the reader learn something well enough to confidently communicate it. For me, it is often complex, counter intuitive financial topics. For example, rebalancing one’s investment portfolio.

The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.

Anais Nin

We read to learn. If you want a reader to take an action — to buy your product, adopt your philosophy or hire you — you must give them the agency to do so. It’s not about impressing readers with your writing, but helping them understand your ideas to the point they could write about them.

Lesson #2: Every piece of writing needs a specific job.

A college professor of mine liked to say, “Every piece of writing works for a living.” It has a specific purpose. It can entertain like a disheveled underpaid clown at kids’ birthday parties or with the high-brow sophistication of Broadway; it can inform as if trivia night at your local bar or in a reality-bending plot twist that makes you question everything; it can empower to do one good deed for the day or completely rearrange your life.

Great writing can do all three, but it is hard to do. At the very least writing should work to get people to come back. I would argue the most important job of financial writing is to empower people. Anyone can learn that you are allowed to save up to $19,500 in a 401(k). But motivating them to do is an entirely different thing.

So, how can you get writing to successfully do its job? The right language.

Consider one study where researchers assigned three pairs of writers to revise two 400-word passages from a high school history textbook. One pair were text linguists, “whose training is in the are of linguistics and psychology;” another were college composition instructors, “whose training is in the area of English or education;” and the last were former Time-Life editors, “whose training is sometimes in English but is often in other areas, who have learned much of what they know about writing on the job.” Three hundred 11th-grade students were then instructed to read both versions and write down what they remembered.

The goal was to investigate what constitutes good expository writing — writing that is interesting, understandable and memorable, and that leads students to want to read. While revisions of all three pairs of writers resulted in substantial and statistically reliable improvements in students’ recollection, the Time-Life editors’ revisions resulted in nearly twice as much improvement as the revisions of the other two pairs of writers. 

The journal article, published in Research in the Teaching of English, explains the editors’ success this way:

Obviously, the Time-Life revisions were undertaken from a radically different perspective than those of the text linguists and the composition instructors. The Time-Life editors certainly did not confine themselves to making structural changes; they changed content and they changed it with a vengeance. Equally importantly, their attempt was not limited to making the passages lucid, well-organized, coherent, and easy to read. Their revisions went beyond such matters and were intended to make the texts interesting, exciting, vivid, rich in human drama, and filled with colorful language.

When it comes to making a piece of writing work, it’s not just about what you say but how you say it. This study is an example of why storytelling has become a popular marketing technique in the finance industry. It works. Another thing we can take away from this study is that it always helps to have others read your work before you publish.

Lesson #3: When you do things right, the work ceases to be your own.

After years of writing professionally anonymously, I’ve wondered: what is the purpose of a byline anyway? Is ownership and attribution all that important when the essence of a piece of writing is greater than its creator?

As a financial writer, the end goal is for someone to take information from you and implement it in their own lives to make better financial decisions. If you do things right, readers think not of you but of what the work means to them. They become owners of that information, owners of your work.

In one of his inspiring Red Hand Files posts, songwriter Nick Cave spoke of the proprietorship of his work, in that it changes hands when the sound waves strike the neurons and soul of his listeners. He wrote:

Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song. It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener.

It’s not your chart-topping hit; it is the song of two people sharing their first kiss. It is not your popular blog on budgeting; it is someone’s commitment to save one dollar at a time.

I’ve learned that who you are as a writer doesn’t matter. The less you try to make a name of yourself as a writer, the better your work becomes.

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