Content Provided by Rusty Vanneman, CFA, CMT – Chief Investment Officer
When I began my career in the investment industry nearly 30 years ago, I never would have guessed I would write as much as I have. I have written everything from market reviews every 20 minutes (!) to weekly, monthly, and quarterly commentary, and even a book!
At this point in my career, I strongly believe writing and communicating my thoughts on paper is one of the most important things I do professionally. It makes me a better investment manager and a better investment counselor. It helps find new investors to work with and hopefully keeps current clients reassured with a good understanding of what I’m thinking and doing and how that impacts their portfolios.
Given how much I write, I am often asked why I think it is important and whether I have any tips on how to write. In a recent episode of CLS’s The Weighing Machine, I went through some of these questions with my co-host, Robyn Murray, who is a professional writer and spent considerable time working with me on the book.
The first question is the easiest. Writing has multiple benefits. It helps me articulate my thinking on a variety of topics, including the decisions that go into managing investment portfolios. Writing down my thoughts helps clarify the key issues behind my decision-making and helps me articulate my conclusions. Over time, I believe writing helps me make better investment decisions.
I also believe being a good investment manager, counselor, or advisor is about much more than manufacturing a rate of return. It’s also about creating a story or narrative, and it’s about service, such as transparent and reliable communication, whether it is written or verbal. It is helpful, of course, if the communication is carefully thought out, which writing helps ensure.
How to Write?
Many investment professionals think they can’t write. They either believe they don’t have anything interesting to say, they simply can’t write well, or both. Most of the time that isn’t true. If you have a message, you can write. And if you’re not comfortable with the quality of your writing, you can get key points written down and outsource the heavy lifting or final-proof polishing to somebody else. Either way, get your ideas on paper.
One trick to master is coming up with topic ideas. If writing to investors, the easiest topics are their concerns, particularly if the same ones keep cropping up. I also find addressing investor sentiment extremes is good fodder. For instance, if everybody is concerned about something, write about why those concerns might be overstated. I also believe good writers tend to read a lot. Reading, first and foremost, provides ideas and inspiration, but it also provides templates on how to structure a piece. Another way to source ideas is to get out of your comfort zone. Different experiences can often spur ideas. Lastly, writing every day goes a long way to stimulating ideas. Just think: Great authors, musicians, and artists create nearly every day, but how much of their work do we actually see? We don’t see the drafts and early versions. We only see their best.
Keeping your audience in mind when writing is also critical. What do they care about? What information do they need to know? The primary goal is not to sound smart (though that’s nice), it’s to help the audience understand what you’re trying to say and to take action or follow your recommendation. The key is to keep the message simple and easy to understand. Imagine you’re writing to your parents, children, or friends who are not familiar with the material. If they don’t understand it, they can’t use it. Then the commentary is a waste of time for everybody.
Once it’s on paper, I find a couple tips to be really useful. First, read the copy out loud. It’s amazing how helpful that can be in finding errors or just getting the commentary into your own voice. Second: “kill your darlings.” This is a writing tip Robyn keeps in mind when writing and editing. In short, reduce your commentary. Force yourself. If you have a page of copy, try to remove a certain amount of words or even a full paragraph. It’s remarkable how this trick can make one’s writing more impactful.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, have somebody else read it. A good copy editor is so valuable. No matter how many times you review your work, he or she can almost always find something to clean or improve.
Hopefully these tips are useful. Start writing!