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How I Write These Commentaries


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
January 22, 2007

I am asked lots of questions, many of them from people other than my stable of imaginary playmates, but no one was yet to ask me how I write these commentaries. Nonetheless, I am happy to provide an answer.

This question occurred to me as I was writing a commentary with the working title "Revenge of the Matrix" that appeared both here and in the November/December 2006 issue of Financial Engineering News (FENews). I was thinking that, with rare exceptions, the columns that I end up writing for FENews are never the ones that I planned on writing.

I keep a running list of ideas for future commentaries. The ones for FENews, which appears in physical form and has a real deadline, are kept electronically. The ones for my website reside in my head with lots of other things deemed sufficiently unimportant to go there and risk neural annihilation. Despite this uncharacteristic degree of forethought, most commentaries, including this one, simply appear out of the ether, unannounced. Unfortunately, they do not appear in a single, coherent piece, but require several passes in order to gain any semblance of coherence. Most of the FENews columns get an additional pass through a good friend who is a fixed income trader and former newspaper editor.

In case you haven't noticed it, there is a formula that most writers use for writing commentaries. I try to avoid using this formula, but it nice to know that it is there when I am in need of anchoring. The formula is to start the column with a hook, create stupid metaphors around the hook throughout the column, and then close the column with some witty remark that brings the original hook full circle. The formula is great when it works, but for most writers it comes off as forced and insipid, at least it does to the discerning reader. The alternative is free-flowing verbiage in which the writer's opinion of his audience is sufficiently low that he is unwilling to expend the effort required to apply the formula.

So, the way that writing this column works is that strange ideas are always popping into my head and sometimes they trigger a synapse that tells my conscious mind, "Hey, I can write about that." Then, about a week before the hard deadline for my FENews column or the soft deadline for the MRA commentaries, I start to think that I had better start writing something. That gets me to firing up Microsoft Word and actually writing. At one time, when I seriously thought that the things that I wrote could matter, I had writer's block, but in recent years I have mellowed out considerably. Writing material without immediate deadline pressure helps things flow because I know that anything particularly bad or libelous can be removed later.

I rarely write the entire commentary on the first pass—I aim to write half of it and usually get two-thirds of it done. For FENews, my target word count is 1,200 and I have the leeway to go 50 words over without incurring editorial wrath. For Miller Risk Advisors, I figure that anything between 900 and 1,800 words is fine.

A distinguishing characteristic of professional/mercenary writers is that they have a good sense of how many words they are writing and how many it takes to express a particular idea or situation. And, unlike most students I've encountered, the challenge is squeezing what you want to say into the required number of words, not padding it out to be just long enough.

I let the first pass at a commentary sit for a day or two and when I come back to it I either find that it is just horrible, which means that I have to start over from the beginning, or that I am further along than I had remembered being. After the second pass, I usually have what is roughly the final product. For MRA pieces, where word count and inappropriate material is less of a consideration, all that usually remains is a final clean-up pass. For FENews, several passes may be necessary to get things presentable. For those columns, I am learning that I have to keep the ideas that I am trying to get across to readers really simple if I want 1,200 words to do the trick. Steve Wozniak almost fits into 1,200 words (I had to ask for a dispensation to give it the full 1,300 words that my column about him required); the subtleties of cointegrated time series do not. The Holy Grail for pulp writers is knocking off 10,000 words a day. My brain explodes after 3,000 words in any twenty-four hour period.)

As has been said before many times, but bears repeating, the key to good writing is rewriting. Unfortunately, the key to rewriting is having more time than is currently available to me. Most parts of the book that goes by Paving Wall Street (hardcover) and Experimental Economics (paperback) were rewritten at least a dozen times. Ditto for Rigged, which could probably stand to be rewritten a few more times. What Went Wrong at Enron, however, is a second draft that was mauled by lawyers to keep everyone involved from being sued. Unlike the other books, it made some bestseller lists. Even though none of the reviewers of the Enron book (including those idiots on Amazon) have said that the writing in it sucks, I still think that obsessive rewriting pays off.

Most of what you have read so far in this metacommentary was written several months ago and stashed for a rainy day. Since then, FENews has announced that it is "suspending publication." If a buyer is found for the publication, it will return in some form (possibly without me); otherwise, it will join the growing heap of dead publications. At this point, I am unsure of what I will do with various partially written FENews articles that are sitting on my hard drive. My favorite is "Dating Tips for Financial Engineers," which is only about one-tenth done and was originally destined for the July/August 2006 until I bumped it in favor of the instant classic Hedge Funds: Corruptors of Youth? Having been re-invited to hang with Ben and the Fed on Sea Island this year, I figured that it would have to wait until 2008 at the earliest because my Fed conference columns work best when they come out as soon after the event as possible. I was reluctant to place an article encouraging financial engineers in their reproductive pursuits in any issue other than the July/August one because as far as I can tell no one important is around to read that issue (except financial engineers looking for dates). After my initial fling with comedy in FENews, Invasion of the Asset Swappers, it occurred to me that FENews readers might not have a sense of humor. Maybe if they had, the zine would not have had to suspend publication.

Copyright 2007 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to