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

Transcendence in Money

Financial writing at its best helps you find or notice transcendent experiences, to do more than just make or save a dollar for the sake of money.

And for me, the transcendent experience, in a nutshell, is feeling that you are connected to something larger than yourself, that there’s some order in the universe.

ALAN LIGHTMAN

One night, the physicist and author Alan Lightman was in his boat off the coast of Maine. All alone, he decided to cut the engine and turn off the running lights, enveloping him in deep silence and utter darkness. Then he lay down in the boat and gazed up at the pinhole fires of the stars above.

As told to Sean Carroll on the Mindscape podcast: “I felt like I was falling into infinity. I felt like I had lost all sense of my body or time or space, and I was just part of the cosmos. I felt a connection to something much larger than myself, and I felt that the infinite expanse of time before I was born, and the infinite expanse of time after I will be dead, all of that seemed compressed to a dot.”

I bet most of us have had similar transcendent experiences, whether with the assistance of drugs or not.

I’ve felt it at times while running, when the world without and within seems to simultaneously expand and contract. I know my city more intimately — the wildlife, the trees, the neighbor’s garden — while at the same running longer distances expands the size of the city I know. Internally, I come closer to my spirit while understanding how large it can grow. All together, there is an indisputable feeling of oneness — an infinite world outside of me mirroring and infinite world within.

From these experiences we can derive new lessons, new ways of thinking. For me, it has been to accept pain and exertion and connecting to the wider world through motion. For Lightman, it is to better understand and appreciate the secrets of the universe.

The belief that you are connected to something larger than yourself can lead to a more satisfaction in all areas of life, including money. We can frame it as a shift from the materialistic norms of society to a greater sense self and purpose, which leads to more positive financial outcomes.

It is transcending superficiality — the need for a faster car, bigger house, etc. — to live with purpose. It is discarding the egotistic self (I) for a greater meaningful self (we). The competition between these two is often why people make mistakes.

There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.

THOMAS MERTON

Instead of using money, you are cultivating it to support your values, that which is bigger than yourself.

That elevated feeling, the sublime, of a more lasting nature, is why research shows experiences bring more happiness to people than possessions.

Here are some financial experiences that can feel transcendent as we defined above:

To live with a sense of meaning every day.

The ability to actually enjoy the fruits of your labor, rather than want only more.

To do work that you want, not that you have to.

Never having to rely on anyone else.

Managing money as if it is not for you but for a greater cause.

Balance between happiness now and happiness later.

To humbly invest money, recognizing you cannot predict much less control the market.

An optimistic view of the future, that you are a vital part of something bigger — human progress — so you are eager to achieve your goals and help others.

Expressing gratitude for the things and life you have rather than tirelessly spending in an effort to change it.

Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.

DALE CARNEGIE

Can financial writing lead to transcendence?

At its core, financial writing is meant to help people make better financial decisions. So, the question can seem a little too deep.

But when you think about how those financial decisions can determine our quality of life and how money can be focused on meaningful purposes, it’s worth asking. As a writer, you should guide people toward those ends.

No one is going to read a blog or article and feel fully transcended. Again, maybe if drugs are involved. But at its best, financial writing can show you the door. And that is not a small thing. All the reader has to do then is walk through, to make the decisions with the knowledge of what bigger, happier things are possible.

Friday Five

Five pieces of financial & non-financial writing and one reason why I recommend reading them.

Learning from experience

I admire Tony Isola for his dedication in helping teachers achieve the financial well-being they all deserve. I envy him for concise yet full writing style. Here, he gets personal with a list of his most valuable lessons in life. They are worth anybody to learn and live, too.

Philosophy in the time of COVID

From infection rates to economic and market trends, data has been top of mind during the pandemic. Eric Weiner, author of “The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers,” asks us to instead search for wisdom. He deftly shows us how we can take the ideas of famous philosophers to overcome the adversity of these trying times.

7 habits of highly effective runners

From a writing standpoint, this is a great example of repurposing a well-known work, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” But Mario Fraioli is a better writer than just that. This list is chock full of information and inspiration, which you can apply to other parts of your life.

Doing more with less stress

This article from Adam Grossman has good strategies for being productive but without all the stress that often comes with competing priorities. But what makes it great is that he backs it up with a lot of useful research. Take note!

Friday fiction: Etgar Keret

” ‘Write whatever comes into your head,’ she said. ‘Don’t think, just write.’ Aviad tried to stop thinking. It was very hard.”

Is a Writing Course Worth Your Time and Money?

No.

There is a price of admission to writing, but it is never tendered to anyone other than yourself.

He didn’t like the thought of them knowing he’d been scared. Didn’t like the thought of them knowing what a fool he’d been. Oh, to hell with that! Tell everyone! He’d done it! He’d been driven to do it and he’d done it and that was it. That was him. That was part of who he was.

George Saunders, Tenth of December

Instead of should I take a writing course, ask yourself What is stopping me from writing right now?

There are innumerable writing courses offered online. Indeed, some are taught by reputable writers. But most are the creation of people who have read The $100 Startup and now hope to make a buck on your dreams of becoming a successful, or just slightly better, writer.

These programs cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and take place over a few hours to a few months.

A better use of your resources is to find and squash that kernel of resistance. What’s stopping you?

The fear of failure?

A lack of confidence?

That futile quest for permission?

I know these feelings well.

When not writing retirement articles or financial marketing content, I’ve been fortunate to publish short stories. Still, I didn’t think I was good enough to write fiction. I never had a writing mentor, and had never participated in a creative writing workshop.

Nagged by this feeling of self-doubt, I sent a letter to George Saunders on a whim. I asked what it takes for a writer to build the necessary skills to write with confidence. It was more of a therapy exercise for myself, as I had no expectations he would ever write me back.

But he did.

Here’s what he said:

To me, it’s been about finding a style that accommodates my particular view and gifts and problems and so on.  So, reading a lot of writers to find your crew, that’s one thing.  And then really learning to revise per your taste, and even micro-revise – tailoring on the phrase level.  Reading and absorbing the masters – that’s the big thing.  It’s all so intuitive, really.  Fill your head up with good examples and then recognize that your “true voice” might be one that you have to edit your way to – by cutting and choosing and rearranging text and so on. 

Mostly I think it’s all about time at the desk AND recognizing that you have levels of taste, way down, that you might not know you have – taste, opinions, preferences.  That’s what readers really value, I think.

What most people want is individualization, to write with their own style.

What is the probability a writing course is going to provide that?

Dean Smith coached a lot of kids. Only one of them became Michael Jordan.

To echo F. Scott Fitzgerald, if you have something to say, something nobody has ever said before, something you feel desperate to say, then what need do you have for someone else’s permission?

Write. Make mistakes. Accept criticism. Repeat.

The fact is, there is a wealth of writing tips, tricks, templates, etc., freely available online. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t waste your money and time on the opinions of a self-declared “top writer.”

Don’t get me wrong. This sounds contradictory, and I don’t care that it does, but I am not saying that no one will ever find value in a writing course.

We all have personal triggers that help us accomplish what we didn’t think we could. A writing course may be yours. The financial and time commitment, the pressure, the criticism from peers. One or all may compel you to write seriously.

But, can you expect anything or anyone else to make you feel, when you’re stuck and the words are hard to come by, that writing is truly worth it?

No.

Friday Five

Five pieces of (mostly) financial writing and one reason why I recommend reading them.

An investigation of WFH’s impact on stocks

Margins is a terrific Substack newsletter. Ranjan Roy’s personal deep dive into topics are informative and entertaining.

Happiness is love. Full stop.

Brad Stulberg reads study after study and remarkably distills them into the essence of living a healthier, more fulfilling life. In this article, he writes of love as the source of happiness. Something that should take precedence in our financial lives, too. For what is money for, if not for that which we love?

Wealth has many definitions

Deep thoughts, expressed simply. Wonderful structure and form. It’s a Morgan Housel piece.

Writing about nature — or anything

Writing advice from one our living greats: Helen Macdonald.

Friday fiction: International Man Booker winner MARIEKE LUCAS RIJNEVELD

She must have seen Hanna’s shocked expression because she asks us if everything’s all right, if all the crushed bodies aren’t upsetting us. I lovingly wrap my arm around my little sister who has put on a sulky pout. I’m aware there’s a risk she could suddenly burst into tears, like this morning when Obbe flattened a grasshopper against the stable wall with his clog. I think it was mainly the sound that scared her,  but she stuck to her guns:  to her it was that little life, the wings folded in front of the grasshopper’s head like mini fly-screens. She saw life; Obbe and I saw death.

Values in Writing

Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.

GANDHI

My Story

I was a terrible baseball card collector as a kid.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know which players were good or how much my cards were worth.

What kept me from building a valuable collection was that I didn’t care about those things. When trading cards with friends or schoolmates, I wanted those of the players I liked most. Anyone from the ’84 World Series Detroit Tigers was gold. Same for the Bad Boy Pistons.

My favorite sports player at the time was Cecil Fielder. I was privileged to have witnessed his remarkable 50-home run season, which was a big deal before the ‘roid era of Sosa and McGuire. How much did I like him? Around then, the movie The Sandlot was released, about a group of boys who play baseball on a barren field and end up in a jam trying to retrieve a ball signed by Babe Ruth. I would have probably traded those kids a ball signed by the Great Bambino for one signed by Big Daddy.

Fielder had some good seasons, but not by any metric is he legend of the game. At least, not according to the marketplace. I bought a signed card of his for $10. Some people would say I had a very naive sense of value. But that’s wrong. I just valued team loyalty over market price.

We All Need Values

Essentially, value is an abstraction, and as such, is relative. We, the market, can collectively ascribe a price to a stock or painting or baseball card. Yet, objects have no inherent value.

Just take a moment to compare what society values with what you value. You see?

What is inherently valuable is an awareness of your personal values – the beliefs, principles or ideas most important to you. Your values can ultimately determine your satisfaction and happiness in life.

Consider a South Korean study found that pursuing goals focused on self-enhancement or self-centered values (money, power, work, etc.) are less likely to result in happiness compared to pursuing alter-centered collective goals or self-transcendence/selflessness (spirituality social relationships, charity, etc.).

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has a well-rounded list of personal values of his website. His advice is to pick less than five, as too many values makes it impossible to nurture any one of them.

It’s good advice. And, it’s a good reference for financial writing.

Speak to Values in Your Writing

If you want your writing to make impression, write about values.

I think the dialogue between writers and readers is an agreement or exchange of values. Consciously or not, readers, especially of financial writing, want information that pertains to their values, either to reinforce them or challenge them.

Therefore, every topic idea for an article should be predicated on a value it addresses. Ask yourself: what value(s) will this piece support? Saving and investing tips are about financial security. Steps to make tax-efficient charitable contributions is about helping your community.

When you can speak to readers’ values, you draw them closer to your subject.

How best to write about values? With stories. The story of an historical figure, an anecdote of your life. Storytelling is value in action, to make the reader not only learn but feel.

An article about Warren Buffett’s value investing strategy is interesting. But a story of how Buffett was rewarded for patience and discipline is inspirational.

It is easy to write short answers to big questions, to write like a search engine. But to make your work resonate, tell a story that imparts values.

People need those stories, perhaps now more than ever.

Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.

NEIL GAIMAN

Friday Five: Values

Chasing success doesn’t lead to happiness

Arthur Brooks’s column “How to Build a Life” is enlightening, and often inspiring. This article in particular explores a major reason why people make poor financial decisions: the pursuit of things that never provide lasting satisfaction. Change your values, change your life.

Help save the environment by putting your money in the right place

Those who value the environment have more ways to make difference with their money. In addition to ESG investing, Kassondra Cloos of Outside magazine reviews various “green” banks.

The worst financial plan is not having one

Anthony Isola has made it a life mission to help teachers make better financial decisions. His work is always from the perspective of values. This article shows you how to do it clearly and concisely.

The coming wave of early retirements

I’m a big fan of playing with structure. Erica Pandey in Axios does a terrific job of breaking an important topic into a format that makes it easy to find and remember the key points. Less tension for the reader, the better.

Friday Fiction: All Hail Murukami

Their conversation took another turn into a dead-end street. She wanted to know just how much he had exerted himself on her behalf. He insisted that he had done everything he could, but he had no way to prove it, and she didn’t believe him. I didn’t really believe him, either. The more sincerely he tried explain things, the more a fog of insincerity came to hang over everything. But it wasn’t Q’s fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Which was why there was no way out of this conversation.

Friday Five: Be Kind

Five pieces of (mostly) financial writing and one reason why I recommend reading them.

A personal finance pocket book

Artistic skill along with writing skill is a powerful combination. Safal Niveshak has got it.

Changing one’s mind on FIRE

A maxim of effective narrative is the human element. Changing one’s mind is part of the human condition (one that should be more widely accepted and celebrated). Here, Christine Benz, one of the finance writers in the game, confronts her change of heart about the Financial Independence Retire Early movement.

The gospel of GaryVee

One of the writers I have admired most is George Plimpton. From suiting up for the Detroit Lions to taking shots to the nose from Archie Moore, he was an active participant in his writing to say the least. Sarah Kessler follows in Plimpton’s footsteps to explore the empire of Gary Vaynerchuk.

Kindness provides a wealth of physical and emotional benefits

There can never be enough articles to remind us to be kind. Elizabeth Bernstein delves into the latest research proving how kindness is good for ourselves and the world.

Friday fiction: Read Mavis Gallant

A lot of entrepreneurs and self-professed thinkers act as if it is a badge of honor to read only non-fiction. Well, those people suck. Reading fiction is a necessity for anyone who wants to grow their emotional intelligence or become a better writer. One great place to start is with Mavis Gallant.

“She was perplexed by the truth that had bothered her all her life—that there was no distance between time and events.”

First Principles Writing

It’s late at night. The words on the screen swirl before your heavy eyes. With each pass, what you wrote sounds worse and worse. A clumsy passage or sentence takes on the appearance of a Gordian Knot. What should be simple and clear is a tangled mess. It doesn’t convey your meaning at all.

Suddenly, you’re overcome with crippling self-doubt, asking: “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I get this right?”

This is a shared experience among writers. Writing is hard, even for those who do it for a living.

I suffered through a similar situation recently. Instead of banging my head against the desk, I decided to just step away. I took a walk. I tried meditating. I drank some wine. I pet my dog and asked her what she would say. When I returned to my work, I still had nothing. That is until I started to leaf through an old, worn, underlined book that is always near my desk.

As with the Gordian Knot of ancient myth, there are simple solutions to overcome seemingly intractable weaknesses in a piece of writing. The problem isn’t you as a writer, but rather in how you look at the mechanics of the problem. Simple solutions are found by breaking down everything into basic parts.

It is the writer’s form of first principles thinking, which is essentially a way of thinking in reverse, deconstructing a problem into its basic elements. Lately, the mental strategy has been popularized by Elon Musk. As the story goes, having found it too costly to buy a pre-made rocket, he studied a rocket’s individual parts, bought the raw materials and made one himself. With that, SpaceX was born.

We are awash with list after list of writing hacks, usually written by hacks. The reality is none of those will magically make writing easier or your writing more successful. I do not want to add another bucket of water to the flood.

Instead, I want to explore some first principles in writing. I don’t think there is a better resource than The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This is the book I picked up that one late night.

Published in 1935, it was updated numerous times, primarily with additional advice from White, of Charlotte’s Web fame. The book generally covers the correct, or acceptable, uses of English. Beyond that though, there is a wealth of advice on style and what makes for effective writing. These are the suggestions that allowed me to see my problem from a more simplified angle. They are more instructive than the impoverished “don’t write shit” tips permeating writing today and certainly more time tested.

Of course, writing has since changed. After all, “language is perpetually in flux.” And technology has influenced how we write and read. But first principles still apply. No matter if you’re writing a novel, personal memoirs, a blog, content marketing or social media posts.

After rereading The Elements of Style, these are the basic principles I think are most helpful for today’s writers.

Choose a suitable design and hold to it

A blank page is a scary sight. Other than prose and poetry, every writer should follow an established form. It is easier to get started and organize your thoughts, as well as determine how detailed you want to write about your subject.

Form can the shape of a certain structure – something as simple as the five-paragraph essay or more creative, like the ingredients of a happy retirement in recipe form. Form can come from a set of creative restrictions, such as a word limit or particular point of view.

Of course, never let shape smother substance. When the mood strikes, let the words flow.

“The first principle of composition is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape… The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.”

Put statements in positive form

Hemingway is famous for saying: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

From a technical standpoint, that means writing definitive sentences. A reader should never have to wade through rivers of doubt.

Example from the book:

Okay: He was not very often on time.

Better: He usually came late.

In finance, this principle is violated all the time. It is, however, generally a result of strict regulatory review. But there’s always room for improvement.

Okay: Market timing is not very often a sensible investment strategy.

Better: Market timing is usually a waste of time.

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language… Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is.”

Use definite, specific, concrete language

This was true in mid-20th century, and it is even more true today. The fact is, I’ve already lost most readers at this point. The average reader spends 15 seconds on a blog. Write clearly and concisely to keep the reader moving forward.

If your essay is a house, build one long hallway, not a labyrinth.

“The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.”

Place yourself in the background

The best advice is often counterintuitive. It is a good indicator of value. When I hear something that sounds counterintuitive, I know I need to pay more attention.

In business, one would think the desires of your customers are crucial to the future of your company. But you’d be wrong. Henry Ford knew better: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

For writers, the urge is to bedazzle readers with style, to show off. How else do you stand out? In truth, the harder you try, the harder you fail.

“…to achieve style, begin by affecting none – that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become more proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts – which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Write in a way that comes naturally

Good writing is an act of restraining one’s ego. Let go of any notion you’re great, or any desire to be the best. Forget about originality. Read voraciously those you think are great, and then write, write, write without care of your own voice. Naturally, it will all come together.

“Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.”

Revise and rewrite

Revising is writing.

Now that publishing is just a click of a button, it is easy to skip this step. Quantity is valued more than quality. I would argue a writer’s chance of success improves with the latter. Many pieces of moderate quality are not as memorable as one piece of high quality. Even if you write a daily blog, give yourself 12-18 hours to step away and then revise.

And do not pressure yourself with writing flawlessly on your first attempt. Lord of the Flies, Portrait of an Artist of a Young Man, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – these are just a few masterpieces that are entirely different from their first drafts.

“It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.”

Do not overwrite

On a computer, words cost nothing. It is easy to get carried away, seduced by the pleasure of clicking keys. You end up with unnecessary words or whole passages. Every sentence is primped like a bride until the reader chokes on the perfume.

Again, keep it simple.

One way to avoid overwriting is to write by hand. It causes you to slow down and really think about to say next.

“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Lastly, we live in a time when writing is judged by SEO and page views. The trend is to write to readers’ wants. This makes sense in content marketing and business writing.

But it isn’t the only way. Personally, I think you should sincerely for yourself. In other words, don’t let how someone looks up information in a search engine to wholly dictate how you write. It may be slower to drawing attention to your work, but it will eventually create a more loyal audience and fell as the more rewarding.

Take it from E.B. White:

“You must sympathize with the reader’s plight but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffer the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead…”

Friday Five: What Are You Worth?

Five pieces of (mostly) financial writing and one reason why I recommend reading them.

How to truly evaluate your wealth

As I wrote in my previous blog, creation, whether it is a work of art or a scientific study, is a form of adding to the conversation. Nick Muggiuli’s blog this week is great example of that. He not only reviews different methods for calculating one’s financial well-being, but takes it a step further. In light of the various limitations of each wealth formula, he creates his own. It shows you how writing can essentially help you find out what you think and then help move the conversation forward.

The future of work and more

Derek Thompson, for me, is in the echelon of must-read writers whenever they publish something. This is a well-thought-out and well researched commentary on what the ramifications of more people working remotely might look like.

Also, humility can go a long way in writing. Aware that “predicting the future is, like dart throwing, easily done and often misdirected,” Thompson provides a rejoinder to each of his predictions. If you ever struggle with filling space for an article, think of counterpoints to your arguments and write about those.

Jason Zweig on Morgan Housel’s new book

These are two of the sharpest writers and minds in finance today. So it is a pleasure to read one exploring the work of the other. Zweig does an excellent job distilling the essence of Housel’s new book, The Psychology of Money, as well as the true meaning of wealth. As Housel writes:

“The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who[m] you want, for as long as you want to, pays the highest dividend that exists in finance.”

The article is also a good example of one effective content idea. Write about someone else’s work, like a book review, with your own thoughts and opinions sprinkled in.

Stoic steps for having the best week ever

Goals are important, but process is key. In finance and life, outcomes are decided by habits. Ryan Holiday was turned an ancient philosophy, Stoicism, into a modern-day self-help movement. His blog is always enlightening and inspiring, helping me to think with more reason and less emotion (though I don’t agree with his extreme monetization of Stoic philosophy). Here he takes seven bits of wisdoms from Stoic philosophers and translates them into a process for living each week as fully as you can. It is a very effective content tool: taking a collection of different ideas and turning them into something different yet cohesive.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements—how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” —Seneca

A life well lived

You learn how to write by reading the greats.

He was a quintessential New Yorker — savvy about its ways, empathetic with its masses and enthralled with its diversity — and wrote about it in a literature of journalism. Along with Jimmy Breslin, he popularized a spare, blunt style in columns of on-the-scene reporting in the authentic voice of the working classes: blustery, sardonic, often angry. When riots erupted in Brooklyn in 1971, he wrote in The Post:

“If people say nothing can be done about Brownsville, they lie. If this country would stop its irrational nonsense and get to work, every Brownsville would be gone in five years. Get the hell out of Asia. Stop feeding dictators. Forget about airports, SSTs, Albany Malls, highways. This country can do anything. And if Brownsville stays the way it is for another year, someone sleek and fat and comfortable should go to jail.”

Everything’s Been Done

The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.

MARK TWAIN

Can anything ever be original?

Read enough finance articles and you start to have a Groundhog Day experience, as the fundamental principles — spend less than you earn, save 10-15% of your income, focus only on what you can control, etc. — are generally the same for everyone.

Write long enough in finance (or any field, even fiction), you’re bound to ask yourself that question… unless you reject the notion of originality altogether.

***

About six years ago, I published an article on the “seven deadly sins of retirement,” a lighthearted parody of the seven deadly sins of Christianity. Not long after, I came across a similar article exploring similar “deadly financial sins”.

This article was more widely read than mine. And unlike an anonymous writer like me, writing for a financial firm’s corporate blog, he had his name on it — to be liked, shared and praised. Admittedly, I briefly succumbed to two deadly sins — envy and wrath. Did this person steal my idea? But then I wondered just how that it was a case of plagiarism.

The seven deadly sins are widely known, and a week doesn’t go by without someone publishing a list of major financial mistakes to avoid.

I simply connected the two, which is what much of writing is about.

Creativity is just connecting things.

STEVE JOBS

The probability of more than one person putting together the two concepts was quite high. So, I had no grounds for feeling slighted.

We are all swimming in the same pool of information. Originality exists only in the form of innumerable combinations.

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE

In finance, the rules rarely change. We have access to the same data. And, the same ideas and topics circulate year after year. You can even time them by season. As the new year approaches, look for those tax saving tips; when the ice thaws and flowers being to bloom, here comes the financial advice for new grads.

Google “how much to save 401k” and the results are page after page of the same rules of thumb.

With the advent of SEO and social media, journalists, bloggers, advisors and marketers are now all competing with each other for readers. There is bound to be overlap on the supply side. More people writing equals more of the same articles.

The way to differentiate yourself isn’t by what you say, but how you say it. Sometimes though it can feel as if everything’s been done already.

That’s okay. The pressure to come up with interesting content is real. I would argue though that it isn’t worth wasting time worrying about.

The more original or exceptional you try to be, the less productive you become. It is better to aim a little lower. Just use your own experiences to push the conversation further.

***

I’ve been thinking about originality lately because I recently found myself on the other end. While doing some analytics research on Google for my article on fake financial news, I came across another article written two years prior on fake investing news.

Again, two people connecting the same two pieces.

People often use the analogy of stacking blocks, like LEGOs, to describe the evolution of ideas. I like to think of it more as a forest ecosystem, a land of tall, old trees next to young saplings, sharing the same soil, drinking in the light of an aging star that has lived long before and will live long after any of us, and breathing in the same air particles that are like tiny blots of memories of those who inhaled and exhaled them before us. A forest where we grow in our own unique shapes and sizes.

In this forest, plant yourself down and never worry about all that already rises above you. Plant yourself down and write.

A couple ideas and a passion is all the permission you need. Just don’t expect it to be original. If you do, then get used to blank spaces.

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

SALVADOR DALI

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.