Weekend Reads: Just Write
Do you want to be a better writer? Me too.
When I Google “get better at writing,” the results page offers quite a number of different methods. Clearly, we have options. But there is a point of diminishing returns for writing tips.
The most obvious component of the problem is that the world has unlimited tips and limited time. And even though there is no scoreboard in writing, it can seem a bit like success is reserved for those who have jumped through the right hoops.
That’s why, when Shreenivas Kunte, CFA, and I were designing writing seminars for members in India, we wanted to make it very clear that there is only one way to improve as a writer: to write.
“Just Do It.”
Any presentation about writing should have the words “Just Write” in 100-plus point font. Ours did. Hopefully, the groups we spoke to heard that message, but we also made sure that they did quite a bit of their own writing.
One of the challenges with writing is that when you start, there won’t be much of an audience paying attention to your work. A glimpse at an old Google Analytics account revealed that exactly two people read one of my early blog posts. I suspect they were my mom and dad.
This is actually good because it prevents writers from being driven by external rewards. Writing is one of the most effective tools to explore and make tangible your own curiosity. However, one of the harder things about it is that there is an emotional rollercoaster at the center of the process. The paths by which you feel progress, make progress, and appear to be making progress could not be more different.
I made a graph of this for you:
The qualitative sentiments expressed by this chart are best described by Ira Glass and Stephen King. Few writers would disagree with Glass’s suggestion that to get better, “you’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I think you should follow any one of the tips mentioned above that appeals to you. But keep this in mind: Writing about investing is not hard, but it is complex and specialized. Not everything about writing, in general, will transfer tidily when the market enters into it.
Even though the investment profession is full of writers who are motivated by their own curiosity, lots of investment writing is inspired by a desire to seem authoritative about what is happening in the market here and now. In addition to impossible, this is highly counterproductive!
The best way to stick it out through the awkward phases is to make sure your writing matters to you. Writers like the pseudonymous Jesse Livermore behind Philosophical Economics would not be churning out the sort of insightful content that they do unless they were getting something out of it. I suspect that something is the discovery process that comes free with a thoughtfully oriented writing process.
What the writers I admire have in common is an orientation toward questions that seem likely to be relevant for the next quarter or year rather than the next news cycle.
Up to a point, the probability of creating deep insight increases with your timeframe. It steadily declines as one attempts to cram every piece of learning from an entire career into one blog post.
Think about “The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville.” The author — Warren Buffett — is well known to many, and I would be among the hundreds who would eagerly read a distillation of everything he’s learned over his career. Astute readers will note that he doesn’t try to cram all that into his letters or his interviews. The audience could never keep track.
The best writing is the fruit of a deep-seated curiosity, chipped away at through experience, and diligently offered to the reader after many edits. We spent most of the time in our writing workshops teaching how to give and receive feedback. I would be nowhere without the colleagues, friends, teachers, and family members who have politely told me to try again over the years.
Tools to Write Better
- Analyze My Writing: A simple readability and content analyzer.
- The Most Dangerous Writing App: Don’t stop writing or you’ll lose everything. A great way to get going.
- The Writer’s How I Write archives: There are as many approaches as there are writers.
- Creative writing prompts: When you’re just trying to get your juices flowing. (Reddit)
- Enterprising Investor guidelines
Pragmatic and Idealistic Reasons to Express Yourself
- “How Conversational Leadership Transformed Our Client Experience” (Halter Ferguson Financial)
- “Writing Lessons for a Better Life” (Collaborative Fund)
- “Tadas Viskanta: Tips and Tricks for Writing a Blog as a Financial Advisor” (Advisor Websites)
- “Writing Your Way to Happiness” (The New York Times)
- Who knew there was so much in The Elements of Style?
Creative Souls Who Needed Workarounds
- . . . for “gnarled and weakened hands.” (Oxford American)
- . . . for being trapped by the concept of willpower. (Nautilus)
- . . . for being “to use his own sad self-accusation, ‘hideous‘.” (The Guardian)
- . . . for being inveterately lazy and far from a morning person. (The Paris Review)
Arthur C. Clarke, Chickens, China, and Coffee
- “The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade” (National Bureau of Economic Research)
- A fascinating interview with the man who made coffee good. (Lucky Peach)
- “Which Came First: The Chicken or the Egg?” (New Statesman)
- “Never, ever, ever has ‘chickens versus cash’ arisen as an issue at all.” (Center for Global Development)
- Called the father of satellite communications, Arthur C. Clarke preferred “godfather.” (Nature)
Momentum, Math, and Misconduct
- “Why Momentum Really Works” (Distill)
- Describing huge numbers simply. (OUPblog)
- “Unlearning Descriptive Statistics” (Stijn Debrouwere)
- “When Harry Fired Sally: The Double Standard in Punishing Misconduct” (National Bureau of Economic Research)
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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12 thoughts on “Weekend Reads: Just Write”
Great insights, much appreciated!
Thanks very much Matt!
I regret to say that I found this article unhelpful. Here’s why:
1. One who preaches about good writing should not–repeat, NOT–lob in, right at the jump, two fragments (e.g., “Me too” followed by “So how”). I almost quit reading right there.
2. Mr. Ortel supplies us with twenty-three (23) links about writing. In my view, that qualifies him as someone who can’t decide what’s really great vs. what’s just very good. It is improbable that any reader in an audience of busy professionals is going to go through twenty-three links. Truth be told, probably none of us will click on more than one or two because he dumped too-too many choices on us.
3. He omitted the single best tool for us over-educated professionals who tend to write too-too long sentences with words that themselves have too-too many syllables: The Fog Index.
I’ve posted on this blog before about that–here: https://blogs.cfainstitute.org/investor/2016/10/10/poor-communication-hurts-performance/–but, for those who might have missed it, here’s an explanation: The Fog Index purports to infer, from a writing sample of at least several hundred words, how many years of education a person needs in order to understand that sample. We should all strive for a Fog Index < 10. That is a tall order when writing about complex topics in finance, but it can be done. Mr. Ortel's piece above–excluding the laundry list of 23 references–has a Fog Index of 10.63. You can paste a sample of your own writing in here – http://gunning-fog-index.com/. Then click on 'Calculate' to see what your Fog Index is.
P.S. The Fog Index of what I wrote above is 8.59.
Thanks very much for the critical read, and for letting me know how you felt about the post.
Most importantly of all, please call me Will.
There are lots of different approaches to writing, and mine is to just do what feels right. That means fragments! Lots, sometimes. I understand that is something of a polarizing choice among grammaticians, but it’s the way I think and speak and so it’s the way I write.
I apologize if there are too many links for your taste in this piece. The format of the Weekend Reads column is to include a large selection of pieces for our audience to browse. I don’t intend for you to read all of them. I hope you did find one or two of interest.
Though I agree the gunning-fog index is a useful tool, I strongly disagree that it should be a primary part of the writing process for investment professionals.
I’ll get to why, but first here is the formula:
Though it’s a beautiful quick and dirty way to estimate readability, it has a number of limitations. Here are three of them:
One of many: If you visit the “analyze my writing” site in the first link above, you’ll find a breadth of writing analysis tools which paint a much clearer picture when taken together. Just like financial ratios, linguistic tools are not recommended for use in isolation.
What’s complex? The word “cheeseburger” and the word “ebitda” are equally complex in the gunning-fog method, as both have 3 syllables.
Not so predictive:The evidence that the Gunning-Fog index predicts reader estimates of “readability” is surprisingly weak.
With that said, If you think something helps you write, I think you should use it. I would just suggest taking care about the way you rely on it. I think the best tool of all is in the title: just write.
Cheers, and all the best!
For Will: I respectfully disagree, sir. The fact that you believe what you believe–which is certainly your right, of course–is why good writers are apt to discount what you write. . .or ignore it completely. Good writers know there’s a whole lot more to good writing than “if it feels good, do it.” That’s a total non-starter–an insult to good writing, in my view, though I’m confident you didn’t intend it that way–if one expects others to invest their time trying to learn from your writing.
For Anjali. Good writing is neither art nor science. It is craft. The only way to get good at the craft of writing–or at any other craft–is to do it. . .and keep doing it, over and over and over. Be sure to work with someone who’s a whole lot better at it than the would-be serious writer is.
Along with doing it, though, we also have to observe great crafts-men and -women. That means reading great writers. They’re not found in magazines or newspapers – those are journalists with limited space and short attention spans. The people that would-be writers–those who didn’t take writing seriously until we were launched on career paths–should read have written great books of both fiction and non-fiction. Anyone reading this blog knows the names of many such writers.
In my own case, I believe that fine writing is good story-telling. Therefore, I focus on great historians and world-class biographers. Herodotus and James Boswell, respectively, are fine launching pads in those two genres.
Thanks again for your comment. I think we agree on much more than you seem to think. Among other things, you’re chatting with a pretty big Herodotus fan.
You write: “the only way to get good at writing is to do it.” That is the point of my essay, and the reason I titled it “just write.” It’s the only way to improve, and we all have much of that to do.
Cheers, and many thanks for offering your thoughts.
Where the craft of writing is concerned, Will, I believe we agree on almost nothing.
I appreciate you taking the time to tell me why. Cheers.
In fact, I’ve told you only a small part of where we disagree. The fact that we disagree on such basic issues means that trying to discuss more- sophisticated and -nuanced ones with you is a waste of time.
Nice! Financial writing is more art than science – art being hard to quantify and sometimes messy. I found this article helpful. Thanks!
I’m so glad you found it helpful. Whenever I think about quantitative rules for good writing I think of this scene from Dead Poets Society. The movie is far from perfect, but the idea of plotting the area under a curve to derive which poetry is good is 10/10.
Cheers and all the best —