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Tools And Tips For Writing Reports And Articles, By Bob Johnson

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.

Organization

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.

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

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.

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

  • A table can be in a very simple format

  • 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

Charts

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.

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.

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

  • A colorful look at sectors

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.