Financial Writing Rules: What Not to Do

Writing for the most part is a liberating exercise (editing is a whole different animal). Lessons come from making mistakes rather than obeying any set of rules. You learn rules to know when or when not to break them. But here are some financial writing blunders that I see often and suggest avoiding:

1. Overwriting

Storytelling does not mean flowery language. No one reads financial writing for its literary merit. Short, simple words in concise paragraphs is the key to effective writing.

2. Empty messages

Advisor blogs often resort to one worthless conclusion: this is complicated, so talk to a financial advisor. It is impossible to write to every reader’s personal financial situation. The best move someone could make may be to talk to a financial advisor. But don’t let the fear of giving away too much cause you to write too little. To help someone do or learn something is to build trust.

3. Clichés

All that glitters isn’t gold. Writing is hard. The pressure to fill space and sound like a good writer leads people to search for short cuts. Clichés are short cuts. No, they’re worse. Clichés are junk food for writers. They are cheap and full of empty calories. They may sound interesting but mean nothing.

4. Jargon or technical language

Finance has its own language. Obviously, your audience determines the vernacular. It’s important to remember though readers can have trouble with what we in the industry consider basic terms, like asset allocation, rebalancing and even equities and bonds. An easy solution is to create your own thesaurus of finance terms and use those self-made synonyms in every piece.

5. Trying too hard

Writing is a means to relate with others. As such, you can try too hard. How many articles have you read that attempt to cover every single pain point, or that provide a misguided interpretation of retirement? How about those heavy with pop culture references? Personal stories are great, but avoid getting too personal. Whatever you do, never force an analogy. Perhaps, those 10 Carrot Top props don’t really offer valuable investment lessons.

6. Lack of empathy

Financial success has as much to do with luck as it does with ability. Most people have debt and no savings not because they are irresponsible. They are not paid enough or have severe medical conditions or have hit a rough patch of misfortunes. Plus, we are all naturally wired to make mistakes. To berate those who do make financial mistakes, or to recommend that everyone follow a set of financial steps, is to demonstrate how much you don’t understand.

I can’t claim to have never broken any of these financial writing rules. Nor can I say I won’t in the future. So, one last rule is to never beat yourself up over breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s necessary. Acknowledge them, then move on and keep writing.

Friday Five

Seth Godin on fear and perseverance

Always a great example on how to say a lot with so little.

A hard, difficult road emotionally and financially

Ben Carlson writes with grace in this deeply personal story.

Remembering 9/11

Bob Seawright is a good writer, so the fact his posts are not short and sweet doesn’t matter.

The necessity of life transitions

If you can comfort and inspire people with your writing like Arthur Brooks, then you must be Arthur Brooks.

Friday Fiction: Lydia Davis h/t Deborah Landau

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