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Welcome to my author's site. I hope you find my articles interesting and informative. A man-with-a-plan, I am utilizing knowledge gained from my business degree 25+ years in the business world and a similar number of years of investing experience, to manage my investments. I have created and... More
  • Tools And Tips For Writing Reports And Articles, By Bob Johnson 11 comments
    Nov 21, 2012 6:02 PM

    This is article is for the writer, it should be useful for anyone who does business writing or creates reports involving financial matters, or for that matter, writes an article for Seeking Alpha or another online publisher. For the experienced writer, perhaps there is some little idea included that will make your task a bit easier or enable you to present your ideas a bit more clearly. I know that I am always learning.

    Sought out by other Seeking Alpha authors to critique their writing, asked for pointers for improvement, I am flattered. In addition, I am humbled. There are many competent writers on Seeking Alpha and some excellent ones. Certainly, I am happy to offer some ideas, which I will do now for a broader audience, the writers and readers of Seeking Alpha. I hope you find something helpful, which should in no way diminish your style and unique voice. Many people have good ideas, and I urge you to read broadly and learn from as many as possible. I do not purport that my ideas are in perfect alignment with those of the Seeking Alpha editors, although I know of no concerns. In addition to what I offer, there are many useful ideas on Seeking Alpha Forums. Click on the Contributor Center at the top right of the Seeking Alpha screen, or follow this link: Contributor Forums>Contributor center>Writing great articles.


    It is a shame to do a lot of good research using the right tools and gleaning the right information and not present it in a way that is readable and appealing. The key is organization.

    My first experience with paid writing for publication was exactly 50 years ago. Since then, I have written in many genres. These include sports news for a daily paper, essays, short fiction, poetry, a non-fiction book, travel pieces, articles for professional journals, enough business writing to cause the demise of a small forest, perhaps 100 graduate level papers, over 200 sermons, scores of radio commercials and about 50 Seeking Alpha articles. Even though I already had a lot of experience under my belt, my first article here was returned for extensive revision, as I did not quite understand the preferred style, the required format and the key items. Like a short story, a Seeking Alpha article has a beginning, middle and an end. Certain elements should be included in each of these. Seeking Alpha readers like hard data, not ambiguity, and actionable ideas are key. There is room for a lot of variation; here is an outline of an acceptable format for an article about several firms in the same industry.

    Tool, the "Article Sentence"

    "This article will describe the Canadian banking system and the elements within it that make Canadian banks a sound and profitable investment." This is for the author's use. This concise articulation of the content is an assurance that the intent is clearly understood by the author and it will keep himself/herself focused and on track when writing the article. I thank my seminary homiletics professor for introducing me to the "sermon sentence"; the same principle applies to other writing.

    Beginning of the article: This part describes the scope of the article, the insights the reader will gain, and the action that this will enable the reader to take.

    Middle of the article: This is the main part, the body of the article. It describes in brief sections, in my example, the factors that make the Canadian system sound. Evidence is given in the form of hard data.

    • Point 1
    • Point 2
    • Point 3

    It goes on to describe the 5 major banks in detail

    Bank 1

    • History
    • Size and focus
    • Markets
    • Strengths and Challenges
    • Outlook
    • Action

    Bank 2

    • History
    • Size and focus
    • Markets
    • Strengths and Challenges
    • Outlook
    • Action

    Bank 3

    Bank 4

    Bank 5

    Each bank description will include qualitative and quantitative data. It will describe number of branches, employees. It will describe moat-protected businesses, if any. There is a discussion of strength, in terms of capital requirements. A section reviews leadership and governance issues. Other issues discussed as appropriate.

    End of the article: The author presents the banks' common and disparate practices, their challenges and strengths. The conclusion includes a summary of action items with alternatives and options. Assurances to the reader reiterate that they now are well informed and can select investments suitable to their goals, leading to success.

    Notes on the above It would be just as appropriate to make one major point and describe its effect on one company. The overall format would be the same. Most articles consist of fewer than 2500 words, the approximate limit on article size. Shorter is better. Cut out "redundant duplication". Many unexciting articles are written in the passive voice. Give it life. Consistency in format throughout enhances readability and the visual appearance of the article. Several ideas and examples herein are from a Canadian Banking article I wrote, but this is not a discussion of that article.

    Tools, System Software and Computer System

    No one needs to get new computer hardware or software to write a good report or article. However, the features of the operating system and application software can make it easier, and faster, to do a good job.

    I run Windows 7 Professional 64 bit and the latest version of the browser that comes integrated with it, Internet Explorer 10. I feel it is better and safer to use key software from the same vendor when possible. That way there are no issues about compatibility of new releases or consistency of output. Others feel differently. I use the Windows Office package, which includes Word 10 and Excel. I work in compatibility mode with Word, which emulates Word '99 to 2003 and produces a .doc format document rather than a .docx. This version is the preference of Seeking Alpha; it is mature and cleaner. It lacks no important features.

    Excel is essential to viewing many online resources and is an invaluable tool for the researcher/writer. One of my goals for this year is to increase my ability with Excel. I cannot overstate how important and useful it is. When I get stuck and do not know how to do something in Excel, I can usually affect a workaround using other tools. However, this is extremely time consuming. Excel is a commercial product. A no cost alternative, the Open Office Spreadsheet, Calc, allows one to view many applications, such as D4L Data. It is not as powerful as Excel, but you can do calculations. Oracle supports this and there is no user fee. Further information and the download is available here.

    Tool, Graphic Illustrations

    A picture is worth 1,000 words. This is what the top of an article on Canadian Banks looked like. The Maple Leaf coin conveys a message: Canada, rich and pure. I will describe how to put this, or any other image, into a document.

    (click to enlarge)

    I captured the above image with a screen shot of an online Seeking Alpha article using Microsoft One Note. Pasted into this Word Document as a PNG file, I added a border using Microsoft Word Picture Tools. In Word, a red tab appears when you click on a picture, and this enables picture tools.

    I selected a color for the border that matches the article title. The image of the gold coin itself came from a search at Google Images for Canadian Gold Maple Leaf. I saved the image to the Desktop as a PNG image. I loaded it into the online Seeking Alpha draft article using the upload utility, which is found at the yellow symbol on the Write Article toolbar, shown below.

    To create this illustration of the writing toolbar, I took a screen shot with One Note and pasted the image into this Word text. Using the path Word> Insert> Shapes I added the image of the arrow below the toolbar and captured both, using One-Note again. I saved it to the desktop as a .jpeg file. I opened it with IrfanView, which is a free and downloadable imaging tool. Using IrfanView I added the two pixel black border and inserted the text, "Upload Graphics". There are surely other ways to create this graphic. I like IrfanView because it is easy to use and fast. It is my choice for adding borders and inserting text to images. More information and a download is here. IrfanView was developed as FREEWARE by a young man from Jajce, Bosnia; a generous genius.

    While the Gold Maple Leaf picture sets the tone of the Canadian banking article, this kind of illustration can be distracting and counterproductive if overdone. Editors have not been shy in informing me of just that. While visual information is most useful, do not illustrate a Seeking Alpha article like a travel piece or an old issue of Life Magazine. Factual business writing is not illustrated solely for decoration and often has a paucity of images. The perennial example of that is the Wall Street journal. Clear graphic presentation of information, however, is very helpful, and adds value.

    Displaying Information in Tables

    I use Microsoft Word Tables to display data. I believe that many other authors do too, and some do a terrific job presenting columnar data with Excel. First, allow me to describe where I get the data, and how I get it into a table. Data exists in tabular form from many sources. These include FinViz, Morningstar, Yahoo Finance, Seeking Alpha, F.A.S.T. Graphs and other data sources. The below is a table created from the Seeking Alpha Portfolio tab. Selection of the companies was with a FinViz screen, and the ticker symbols were pasted into the portfolio input utility.

    Part of a table as selected from an initial screen

    (click to enlarge)

    (click to enlarge)

    Above is the finished product after further screens have narrowed the selections to 7 and the table presented in a more appealing form. Generally, I keep the same color scheme throughout an article.

    Often, all of the required data is from one source. Sometimes, though, data will come from three or four different sources and it is necessary to select columns from different places. See the example below. The Price, Target, Target, P/E and PEG are from Yahoo Finance, the Yield, Payout and DGR from Seeking Alpha and the 5 year EPS Growth from F.A.S.T. Graphs. The sources must list the companies in the same order or you must reorder them. Some sources alphabetize by Name, others by Symbol. Carefully check the order of firms like Annaly Capital (NYSE:NLY) and AT&T (NYSE:T). In addition, take a look at like fields from different sources to be sure that they are reporting data from the same period and in a consistent manner.

    (click to enlarge)

    • A company logo or service mark can trigger recognition and heighten relevance.

    (click to enlarge)

    • A table can be in a very simple format

    (click to enlarge)

    • Data presentation from many sources with can have uniform colors, such as this FAST Graphs chart in deep blue.

    • Comprehensive tables for reference have their place

    (click to enlarge)


    There are many sources of charts online, and usually you can find one that suits your purpose. Often Yahoo Finance charts suit my needs well, and I simply grab them using One Note and then use IrfanView to add a border and other items. The below chart is from the same article as the above Word Tables. The chart includes a message I have been trying to get out for a couple of years, Canadian Banks are not like US Banks.

    (click to enlarge)

    Graphs and charts you develop as well as ones displayed by your sources can illustrate your point. There are useful charts in many third party documents, give mention of the source.

    Some of the various forms of graphs and charts I have used the past year are shown below.

    • There are problems arising from doing business in Mongolia.

    (click to enlarge)

    • Adding borders of similar color can enhance the visual unity of an article.
    • Mining does not exist in a vacuum

    (click to enlarge)

    (click to enlarge)

    • A colorful look at sectors

    (click to enlarge)

    (click to enlarge)

    At the end

    Your carefully researched article, well organized, well written with clarity and brevity will draw many readers. Your illustrations, consisting of graphs and charts, reinforce your key points making action on your suggestions the logical outcome. Good luck and enjoy!

    A companion blog, The Best Online Tools for Stock Selection and Analysis, also by Bob Johnson, provides online resources for research and analysis of stocks.

Back To Bob Johnson's Instablog HomePage »

Instablogs are blogs which are instantly set up and networked within the Seeking Alpha community. Instablog posts are not selected, edited or screened by Seeking Alpha editors, in contrast to contributors' articles.

Comments (11)
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  • Colin Lea
    , contributor
    Comments (606) | Send Message
    I suggest you forward this piece to the SA Editorial Team Bob. What I think would be handy for new writers as they come onto SA is for there to be an online editorial handbook that sets the baseline for article standards SA expects aspiring authors to meet. It can also guide them through the nuances of using the writing platform on the site, and explain how the editorial process works. This would be a simpler process for new writers rather than combing through numerous threads in the contributor forums which offer conflicting advice.


    Regards, Col
    22 Nov 2012, 07:40 AM Reply Like
  • Bob Johnson
    , contributor
    Comments (2994) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Colin,


    Thanks for your comment. You are spot on, as they say, and I'm about ready to try that again. Frankly, for an organization that publishes 300 pieces a day, it would save them an immense amount of editorial time.


    Indeed, I tried that before I posted this blog and they turned it down. I'll try again soon, I have the attention of at least one or two of the right people. Also, I would like to see a style sheet. That would let you know that when you say "billion", if you should use B, Bn, bn or spell it out. This is just a usual reference tool to establish editorial consistence. I once was involved with publishing and overseeing editing of a newsletter. We simply stated that we used the Wall Street Journal style sheet, or something like that. Oh, they could even make their spell checker consistent with the style sheet.


    Not to be nosy or nosey, but if I interface with an organization nearly every day of my life, it would be a usual courtesy to provide me, and other authors, with an organization chart. I always had one for corporations with which I did significant buiness.


    And as far as their "anonymous editors" position, I'd like to see the accountability that goes with being a person. Guidelines could be set up so it is not abused, and so that authors don't shop too much for editors when submitting an article. (I'd make it so that you threw it over the transom to Seeking Alpha, the publisher, but whomever threw it back, the editor rejecting it or suggesting changes was named as a person. That's kind of like it was in publishing for many years.


    While I can usually figure it out, it would also be helpful to know if the person casting back my work was a sergeant with hash marks way up his arm, or some kid with a shiny gold bar or two on his cap.


    ... and when they put me in charge, Colin, I'll look for an Australian Colonel to help me to put everything right. lol


    My best to you my friend,
    Bob J
    7 Mar 2013, 10:56 AM Reply Like
  • AlbionWood
    , contributor
    Comments (959) | Send Message
    It's astonishing to find that SA does not have written guidelines and style sheets for authors - but it does explain a lot! The site has grown in popularity and now features several very good writers with useful analysis. Unfortunately, it also still features a large number of poor-to-mediocre authors as well, and offers no mechanism for screening them out of one's feed.


    I have argued repeatedly for an "Ignore" button, in addition to the "Follow" option, as a way for readers to avoid wasting time clicking on articles with intriguing headlines but worthless content. So far, that suggestion has been ignored. :/ Seems to me it could be useful to SA, as a way to reduce the effort involved with editing and publishing articles that are not contributing value, but perhaps I misunderstand the business model. Personally, I would rather SA published 100 pieces a day, well-written and containing useful information, than the current 300/day of widely varying quality.
    8 Mar 2013, 01:17 PM Reply Like
  • Bob Johnson
    , contributor
    Comments (2994) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Albion,


    I asked for a style sheet for over a year, asking several levels of editors. An enthusiastic response in one case but nothing ever happened.


    Most publications, such as newspapers, magazines and journals publish a style sheet to impose order, consistency and discipline.


    Even the APA (American Psychiatric Association) has a style sheet.


    One church I know of used the NY Times style sheet as a guide for their newsletter and other communications.


    In my mind a workable style sheet is linked with quality publications. Today, it is often an online pdf document, not a bound book which sits beside your typewriter.


    Bob J
    30 Apr 2014, 05:50 PM Reply Like
  • Wouter van Tiel
    , contributor
    Comments (145) | Send Message
    Yes indeed, SA has a new help series of emails, but still it is not easy to get started and my first two attempts were declined. Such a waste of time.


    Especially since many articles that are coming out are either short, contain baseless opinion or are fundamentally flawed. Yet a good technical analysis piece finds no traction, even when fundamental and economic info is presented in short form as related to the technical info and is therefore readable vs a long a drawn out analysis which is already available on SA.


    Fundamental info is great but in the end when do you act on it? For that some technical outlook is actually helpful.
    15 Mar, 01:42 PM Reply Like
  • John Dowdee
    , contributor
    Comments (879) | Send Message
    Thank you for your wonderful tutorial. I am a new author on Seeking Alpha and your article helped tremendously. It should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking of submitting an article.
    28 Mar 2013, 06:36 PM Reply Like
  • Robert Mattei
    , contributor
    Comments (1086) | Send Message
    Thank for writing this. I was looking for help writing an article and this provided it.
    25 Apr 2014, 08:52 AM Reply Like
  • Bob Johnson
    , contributor
    Comments (2994) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » @John Dowdee


    Thanks and good luck!
    30 Apr 2014, 05:34 PM Reply Like
  • Arthur Paullin
    , contributor
    Comments (502) | Send Message
    Bob: I am having a terrible problem trying to display arithmetic information into an article. For example:


    Sales $12,345
    Cost of Sales-
    Labor $2,789
    Material 4,123 6,912
    Gross Profit 5,433


    I am not able to demonstrate the single and double underlining here but they don't seem to a problem. The problem I have is that regardless of whether I use "Tables" in the SA word processor or "Tables" in Word or create what I need in Excel or in Word, when it gets into SA article preview, the information is jumbled up and the figures are not columnized (justified) properly.


    What tools should I be using?
    Ha! It doesn't work here either! It is fine in Edit mode and screwed up in published form. I think it has something to do with the lack of ability to use indents.
    25 Apr 2014, 07:06 PM Reply Like
  • Bob Johnson
    , contributor
    Comments (2994) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Arthur,


    There is a simple remedy for your problem.


    1. Create whatever table or spreadsheet you wish in the form you would like to use to present it. I use Word often but sometimes Xcel or other tools.


    2. Capture the table by taking a "screen shot" of it. I use One Note, which is a Microsoft tool for making screen clippings, among other things. Paste the image you captured on a blank word document. You then have the option of saving it as a picture in jpg or png format. I usually save the screen shot picture to my desktop or a folder for the article on the desktop.


    3. Load your article without any images (of tables, spreadsheets or charts) onto the SA article uploader. After you have loaded the article, upload the pictures (images) of tables etc.


    4. Before uploading the picture you can add text to the table or chart or add a border of any color using a tool like Irfanview (download for free) or some Adobe products.


    Look at my sample article, above, and you will see reference to inserting images. In addition, to really figure this out I would google 'Cut and Paste with One Note' and also google 'Irfanview'.


    Best regards,
    Bob J
    30 Apr 2014, 05:30 PM Reply Like
  • Arthur Paullin
    , contributor
    Comments (502) | Send Message
    Thanks, Bob.
    30 Apr 2014, 06:17 PM Reply Like
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