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Style Guide

BELOW ISN’T MEANT to be a comprehensive style manual, but rather a list of writing practices that HumbleDollar contributors should strive to follow:

  • Good writing takes time. Try the three-day method. Day No. 1: Draft the article. Day No. 2: Polish. Day No. 3: Give a final read, and check all facts and for grammatical mistakes. One trick: Have your computer read your article out loud. Errors in the piece will leap out at you.
  • Illustrate generalities with specifics. Give examples. Add telling details to help bring a piece alive. Don’t be shy about mentioning the stocks and funds you own.
  • Ask how your article will help readers to improve their financial life. What’s the financial lesson? What’s the advice?
  • If you make a factual mistake and readers notice, your credibility will be shot. Double-check all facts. Then check again.
  • Favor short sentences.
  • As a rule, limit paragraphs to no more than four sentences.
  • Don’t double space after periods.
  • Don’t create paragraph indents by using the tab key. Instead, use Microsoft Word’s paragraph formatting function or, failing that, simply leave all paragraphs flush left.
  • Include hyperlinks to key data sources. If you add a hyperlink, insert it behind no more than two words.
  • Contractions (hasn’t, there’s, didn’t) make writing seem breezier, but don’t overdo it. Limit yourself to no more than two contractions per sentence, and preferably just one.
  • Much advice journalism is written in the “you” format. “You shouldn’t invest heavily in your employer’s stock.” But don’t overlook the virtues of the “we” format, especially when writing about mistakes. It can come across to readers as more sympathetic (“we all imagine we know which way stocks are headed”) and less accusatory.
  • Your financial story may have a happy ending, but avoid boasting. Financial success typically involves struggle and some measure of luck. If you’ve been successful, never suggest it was solely due to your financial savvy. Readers dislike braggarts and warm to those who show humility.
  • Avoid “one,” as in, “One’s personal risk tolerance plays a role.” Instead, switch to the “you/your” or “we/our” format.
  • Don’t begin sentences with “however” unless it’s in the sense of, “However much it costs, I’ll buy it.” If you’re using “however” as a substitute for “but,” it should appear later in the sentence, such as, “She wasn’t, however, convinced.”
  • Starting a sentence with a capitalized “and” is an acceptable literary device, but don’t overuse it. Once in an article is okay and maybe twice, but only if the two uses are separated by a fistful of paragraphs.
  • Don’t use exclamation marks unless World War III just broke out or you’re quoting another piece where the writer has included exclamation marks. If something is exciting, make it exciting with your use of language. You’d be hard-pressed to find an exclamation mark anywhere in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.
  • Don’t underline words. Underlining is reserved for hyperlinks.
  • Don’t use boldface except in subheads.
  • Use of italics to emphasize words is an acceptable literary device. But like starting a sentence with “and,” don’t overuse it. As a rule, employ italics for emphasis just twice in any one article, and preferably not at all.
  • Avoid starting sentences with “so.”
  • Our style is okay, not OK.
  • Don’t use the forward slash, as in “and/or.” Find an artful way to avoid the forward slash or simply opt for “or,” knowing that the “and” is often implicit. What about the backward slash? That’s reserved for computer code.
  • Never refer to stocks as “equities.” If you’re looking for an alternative to stocks, try “shares.” Similarly, don’t refer to bonds as “fixed income,” unless you’re absolutely desperate, in which case “fixed-income securities” is (barely) acceptable. Wall Street lingo should be avoided at all costs or, if it’s unavoidable, it should be explained in plain English.
  • Never refer to a stock or fund solely by its ticker symbol. That said, it’s helpful for readers to know the symbols for the stocks and funds mentioned in an article. “My favorite fund is Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (symbol: VT).”
  • You aren’t writing a corporate memo. On HumbleDollar, nobody “reaches out” to anybody else, and nothing is ever “optimized,” “impacted” or “impactful.” Impact should only be used as a noun, as in, “The tax law change had a powerful impact.”
  • Strive to avoid parenthetical statements. While useful for humorous asides, this is usually a sign of lazy writing. If a statement is worth including in the article, it should be woven into the piece in a way that doesn’t necessitate parentheses.
  • Numbered and bulleted lists can work well. But please don’t use other delineators, such as 1), 2), 3)  or i, ii, iii, or a, b, c, or some other funky symbol available through Microsoft Word.
  • While numbered and bulleted lists, or the use of subheads, can be very effective, don’t overdo it. If you have, say, a numbered list in an article, try to avoid also having a bulleted list or a series of subheads.
  • The names of states should be spelt out, not abbreviated.
  • Use the % symbol, rather than spelling out “percent.”
  • Never use ~ as a substitute for the word “about.”
  • Never write “etc.” If necessary, say “and so on.”
  • Numbers one through nine are spelt out unless they’re accompanied by a symbol, such as 4% or $7. Higher numbers are always left as numerals.
  • Never start a sentence with a numeral. This is a reason to break the previous rule. An example: “Five thousand people crowded the park,” not “5,000 people….”
  • If the inflation rate fell from 6% to 4%, it didn’t fall 2%. Rather, it fell two percentage points.
  • The “why” in “reason why” is redundant. Delete it.
  • The “in order” in “in order to” is redundant. Delete it.
  • If you start a sentence with “not only,” the sentence must later have a “but also.”
  • On first reference, spell out all acronyms except those that are most widely known, such as CEO, CPA, MBA and IRA.
  • Don’t overuse acronyms. If you’re writing an article about exchange-traded funds, you’ll want to use the acronym ETF for second and subsequent references. But if the article also mentions the Social Security Administration and adjusted gross income, readers will become exasperated if—along with ETF—you start throwing around the acronyms SSA and AGI.
  • Our style is 401(k) and 403(b). The letter should be lowercase and in parentheses.
  • It’s Treasurys, not Treasuries. Why? Suppose you visit your mother every Tuesday. Would you go on Tuesdaies—or Tuesdays?
  • An organization is a singular noun. “The company stiffed its investors,” not “the company stiffed their investors.”
  • Avoid mixing singulars and plurals. Wrong: “He or she shouldn’t claim their benefits at age 62.” Correct: “They shouldn’t claim their benefits at age 62.” To make your writing less tortured, try to avoid the “he or she” construct by sticking with the plural (“people,” “folks,” “many individuals”).
  • Formal writing typically employs the Oxford comma, which is the comma put before the “and” in a list of items. “He was short, bald, and stupid.” Most of the time, however, that final comma is unnecessary and should be deleted. Only include the Oxford comma when it makes things easier on the reader.
  • Headlines on HumbleDollar are limited to 19 characters—20 in a pinch. This includes all numbers, letters and any spaces between them. Similarly, the initial words of an article or blog post are in all capital letters, but again the limit is 19 characters.
  • Are you at the end of your piece and find yourself writing, “In conclusion”? Stop. There’s no need to summarize the article or blog post. But, with artful writing, you can conclude a piece with a punchy ending.

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