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Writ Large

Jonathan Clements

WANT TO BE A PERSONAL finance columnist? I can’t claim expertise on many topics, but this is one where I draw on a lifetime of experience.

And it isn’t just as a writer. At HumbleDollar, I have a hand in editing every piece that appears, plus I get to see the numbers on which articles catch readers’ attention—and which get the cold shoulder.

To be sure, popularity isn’t necessarily the best way to gauge an article’s quality. Sometimes, a HumbleDollar article garners big traffic because it gets mentioned on a far larger website. Sometimes, the day an article appears is one with big breaking news or terrible stock market performance, and readers are spending their online time elsewhere or they simply don’t want to think about their finances.

Still, I’ve come to have a pretty good sense for which articles will be well-received by readers. Want to write a personal finance piece that gets decent traffic? It doesn’t need all 10 attributes listed below. But the more of these elements a piece has, the better read it’s likely to be.

1. Relevant. If you write an article that covers recent market action or addresses legislation just passed by Congress, it might strike folks as a must-read. But a “news peg” isn’t the only way to be relevant. The key issue: Is the article important to the reader’s life? A piece that discusses how to squeeze more happiness from vacation spending may strike folks as more relevant to their life than a piece that analyzes the latest bond market trends.

2. Revealing. As a columnist, you shouldn’t simply report the facts. Instead, you need to offer an opinion on those facts, and often the best way to offer an opinion is to talk about what you’re doing with your own money. The more personal the piece, the more likely you are to engage readers. This isn’t always a comfortable thing to do. Still, if you want to buy yourself broad readership, the price may be a small piece of your soul, plus some specific details about your finances.

3. Relatable. Most folks don’t have seven-figure portfolios. A quick way to lose readers: Talk about wealth and spending in ways that they simply can’t relate to.

4. Likeable. This is in the same vein as “relatable.” If you mention your oversized portfolio, mansion or six-figure car, you’ll lose readers in a hurry. Nobody likes a braggart. Of course, if you write about personal finance, readers assume you’ve done reasonably well with your own money. But if your columns tend toward boasting, while failing to mention your struggles and mistakes along the way, don’t expect to garner many readers.

5. Smart. After writing about personal finance and investing for a while, you’ll realize the basics are pretty straightforward and it’s tough to say anything original. As I’ve joked occasionally, “There are only 20 personal finance stories—which means that, by the time I left The Wall Street Journal after penning more than 1,000 columns, I’d written each of those stories 50 times each.” Still, if you can tell readers something they didn’t know before—or tell them about an old truth in a new, intriguing way—you may have yourself a winning article.

6. Surprising. Every so often, it’s good to surprise readers by, say, offering an article that seems off-topic—such as when HumbleDollar posts an article that has little to do with finance (though I’d argue that almost everything has a money angle). For instance, in 2022, we’ve run articles on wrestling, triathlons and joining the circus.

7. Anecdotal. Readers like stories, especially those that incorporate the telling details that make a story compelling. But the best anecdotes are those that tell the reader something about the broader financial world and which you can support with evidence from, say, an academic study, government data or a statistically meaningful survey.

8. Lists. There’s a reason I’ve numbered the points in this article. Readers love lists.

9. Accurate. Even a minor error in an otherwise accurate article will cast doubt on the veracity of the entire piece. Indeed, at the publications where I worked during my career, the gravest sin you could commit was to make a factual mistake.

10. Actionable. This is a word I loathe. It strikes me as yet another example of the corporate speak that has infected our otherwise lovely language. And don’t get me started on words like optimize, impacted and connectivity. You can read more about my pet peeves in HumbleDollar’s style guide.

That said, “actionable” is indeed a key element of a good personal finance article. Yes, readers want to be informed and entertained. But they also want to be told what it all means for the way they manage their money. Is this article actionable? For most readers, perhaps not. But I hope it’ll be helpful for anyone who wants to write for HumbleDollar.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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