The Single Biggest Writing Mistake You Can Make (And How To Avoid It) ⋆ [FinCon]

The Single Biggest Writing Mistake You Can Make (And How To Avoid It)

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of FinCon Connection. It was written by Matt Schulz who has spent over twenty years creating and editing online content. Here’s Matt…

My son is the love of my life. He fills my day with love, joy and wonder — and, of course, frustration, annoyance and even anger from time to time. He also fills it with questions.

“Can giraffes swim?”

“How much does the sun weigh?”

“What time is it in Germany?”

I love his questions because I learn with him. When I was a kid, we might have opened an encyclopedia or gone to the library to find such answers. Now, I just grab my iPad, type the question into Google and learn something. Question answered.

Sometimes his questions are random. Other times, they’re not, such as when he interrupts me as I try to explain something to him. “What does that mean?” he’ll ask.

It happens all the time. I’ll explain something and use a term that goes over his head. Again, I love that he asks me. It shows that he’s listening, which doesn’t always happen. It also forces me to step back and reconsider how to convey what I’m trying to tell him. After all, if he doesn’t understand some of what I tell him, the entire point of our conversation could be lost on him.

The same thing is true in financial writing.

The Biggest Mistake You Can Make

The worst mistake that you can make in preparing your financial content is to assume your readers have more knowledge than they actually do.

Readers can’t interrupt you to ask a word’s meaning the way my son can when I talk to him. They can’t ask you to clarify a point you’re trying to make. They’ll simply get frustrated, click away from the page and never come back.

That’s true no matter your audience. Whether you’re writing for someone who is new to personal finance or someone with an advanced degree in economics, be clear and remember who is reading.

When Should You Explain More?

That can be much easier said than done. It can even be hard to know what needs explanation. How do you figure it out? Here are three solutions:

  1. Ask someone. Ask a friend or family member, assuming that they’d match your audience fairly well. For example, if you ask your significant other what a HELOC is and they look at you dumbfounded, it requires further explanation.
  2. Google it. You’re probably not the first person to write about a given topic. Check out how writers you respect have explained what you’re describing. Just don’t take their words — that’s called plagiarism.
  3. Trust yourself. In the end, you probably know your readers best, simply because you’ve interacted with them the most. You know which types of articles they prefer. You’ve read their comments. You’ve emailed or even spoken with them. That doesn’t mean you’ll always keep your audience in mind when you’re writing. Nor does it mean that you’ll be right in the assumptions you make about them. However, if, as you’re writing, you wonder if you need to explain something better, you probably do. Err on the side of explaining more than not.

 So What’s The Best Way To Explain?

Take the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). At Investing Answers, our reporter Christian Hudspeth recently wrote about consumer complaints the agency had received about credit card companies in its first year of operation. We received a list of those complaints through a Freedom of Information Act request, analyzed them and wrote up what we found.

Problem is, most readers of InvestingAnswers.com don’t know much, if anything, about the CFPB.

Here’s what we wrote:

“The bureau is meant to be a one-stop shop for consumer complaints about banks. Prior to its formation, a consumer wanting to file an official complaint about a bank with the government had to determine which one of an alphabet soup of agencies (FRB, FDIC, OCC, etc.) regulated their particular bank.”

We didn’t need to mention the political wrangling surrounding the new agency. We didn’t need to talk about who was leading it. What mattered in the context of that article was that the bureau was now the place in the government that collected complaints about card issuers.

Of course, explanations don’t all have to be that long. Sometimes a brief parenthetical is all that’s needed. For example, I wrote this in a story for Investing Answers about credit card application fees:

“The Credit CARD Act of 2009 — the most sweeping, pro-consumer regulatory change in the history of the credit card business — took direct aim at companies that charged excessive fees.”

Again, the reader didn’t need a page-long history lesson. They needed to know why it was significant to the story they were reading.

Finally, nothing helps explain a concept like a real-world example. This comes from a story at www.CreditCards.com, about a credit card rate decrease:

“These lower rates mean real money to consumers. For example, a typical cardholder who borrowed $5,000 on a credit card today and paid $150 monthly at today’s average APR would have to spend $45 less to pay off the balance than they would have just two months ago, when rates were at their all-time peak.”

It may be wordy, but better to be wordy and clear than concise and confusing. And that’s true whether you’re talking to an elementary school kid or an economics professor. After all, no one ever complains about a story being a bit too long if it’s compelling and easy to understand.

You can connect with Matt Schulz on LinkedIn.

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