CFA charterholders are by de facto investment writers; Writing is the primary way of communicating investment ideas and we are judged by the quality of our ideas in written format. Bad writing can be a major career risk and it is a skill that we should focus on. There are a few reasons why we financial types typically resist improving our writing skills. One, we say “I’m a numbers person, not a words person.” While you may be a numbers person, you live in a world where you need to be able to be both types of people. Two, you feel that writing is an innate skill and you don’t have it. This is not true, if you focus on writing and practice it, you can become a better writer.
On August 15th, CFA Society Chicago welcomed Scott Wentworth, founder of Wentworth Financial Communications, to help attendees learn how portfolio managers, analysts, and other investment professionals can enhance the returns of their writing efforts by following a disciplined, repeatable process. Wentworth explained six keys to improving your writing.
- Trust the Process
- Tell your Alpha story
- Don’t bury the Lead
- Overcome the Curse of Knowledge
- Attack the Misconceptions
- Narrow the Scope
Mr. Wentworth noted that in the same way you have an investment process; you also need a process for writing. There are several steps to the writing process including brainstorming, researching, making an outline, writing, and editing. When brainstorming, putting ideas down on paper will help you start identifying themes. When researching, gather your inputs and narrow the focus of the article. Be sure to make an outline, which will help organize the ideas, identify headlines and sub-themes, and will create the roadmap for the article. For the actual writing portion, he suggested getting “chunky” and setting aside blocks of time to write. Writing takes a lot of concentration and you should eliminate as many distractions as possible. Find a different location or empty office, and then just pull the trigger and do it! The last process of writing is editing. You should first take a mental break and then come back and read your piece out loud. Also have a friend or co-worker edit the article, as it is hard to edit your own work.
When you tell your Alpha story, you need to focus on a compelling way to articulate your thesis, explaining why it exists and telling where it came from in a qualitative manner. You can be more creative in this step. Story telling should incorporate anecdotes, examples, and analogies that help the reader visualize what you are writing about.
The headline is valuable real estate in your article, so don’t bury the lead. You need to be able to capture the reader’s attention span so that they read the article and don’t just skim it. You should write like a journalist: give the conclusion at the beginning and then back it up with your facts and insights.
To overcome the curse of knowledge, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Avoid writing over their heads and say things clearly and plainly; be sure to avoid jargon. When you make a complicated topic accessible, you appear smarter to your audience. Be sure to spell out your line of reasoning and take them through your thesis step by step.
When attacking the misconceptions you should be aware of what the audience knows. Then focus on completing their level of knowledge by addressing the myths and facts. It will also allow you to make the topic relevant to your audience. This also saves time and will keep your article focused and shorter in length.
To narrow the scope of an article, it is better to go deep into the subject to showcase your expertise. If the scope is too broad, your article will be too big and too long. Smaller pieces allow more specific insights and avoid high level general insights.
In review, the six keys to improving your writing are trust the process, tell your Alpha story, don’t bury the lead, overcome the curse of knowledge, attack the misconceptions, and narrow the scope. If you are able to follow these key items, you will be able to produce good writing and improve your writing skills and communication with your clients.