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.
I think the probability of creating deep insight is greatest when the author is focused on questions with applicability between the next quarter and the next year. 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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