10 Steps to Building a Winning Trading Plan

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There is an old saying in business: “Fail to plan and you plan to fail.” It may sound glib, but those who are serious about being successful, including traders, should follow these eight words as if they were written in stone. Ask any trader who makes money on a consistent basis and they will tell you, “You have two choices: you can either methodically follow a written plan, or fail.”

If you have a written trading or investment plan, congratulations! You are in the minority. While it is still no absolute guarantee of success, you have eliminated one major roadblock. If your plan uses flawed techniques or lacks preparation, your success won’t come immediately, but at least you are in a position to chart and modify your course. By documenting the process, you learn what works and how to avoid repeating costly mistakes.

Whether or not you have a plan now, here are some ideas to help with the process.

Disaster Avoidance 101…
Trading is a business, so you have to treat it as such if you want to succeed. Reading some books, buying a charting program, opening a brokerage account and starting to trade is not a business plan – it is a recipe for disaster. “If you don’t follow a written trading plan, you court disaster every time you enter the market,” says John Novak, an experienced trader and developer of the T-3 Fibs Protrader Program.

John and his wife Melinda, who is also his business partner in Nexgen Software Systems, run a number of educational trading chat rooms to help traders learn how to use their software and, more importantly, learn how to trade. In a nutshell, their software identifies Fibonacci areas of support and resistance in multiple time frames and provides traders with specific areas to enter and exit the market. Once a trader knows where the market has the potential to pause or reverse, he or she must then determine which one it will be and act accordingly.

“Even with the best program, market data and analysis, odds for consistent success range from slim to none without a written plan,” says Novak. The Nexgen website offers examples of trading plans and useful market information for the benefit of both clients and non-clients alike.

“Like the markets, a good trading plan evolves and changes, and should improve over time,” says Melinda Novak. 

A plan should be written in stone while you are trading, but subject to re-evaluation once the market has closed. It changes with market conditions and adjusts as the trader’s skill level improves. Each trader should write his or her own plan, taking into account personal trading styles and goals. Using someone else’s plan does not reflect your trading characteristics.

Building the Perfect Master Plan
What are the components of a good trading plan? Here are 10 essentials that every plan should include.

 

Skill assessment – Are you ready to trade? Have you tested your system by paper trading it and do you have confidence that it works? Can you follow your signals without hesitation? If not, it’s a good idea to read Mark Douglas’s book, “Trading in the Zone”, and do the trading exercises on pages 189–201. This will teach you how to think in terms of probabilities. Trading in the markets is a battle of give and take. The real pros are prepared and they take their profits from the rest of the crowd who, lacking a plan, give their money away through costly mistakes.

Mental preparation – How do you feel? Did you get a good night’s sleep? Do you feel up to the challenge ahead? If you are not emotionally and psychologically ready to do battle in the markets, it is better to take the day off – otherwise, you risk losing your shirt. This is guaranteed to happen if you are angry, hungover, preoccupied or otherwise distracted from the task at hand. Many traders have a market mantra they repeat before the day begins to get them ready. Create one that puts you in the trading zone.

Set risk level – How much of your portfolio should you risk on any one trade? It can range anywhere from around 1% to as much as 5% of your portfolio on a given trading day. That means if you lose that amount at any point in the day, you get out and stay out. This will depend on your trading style and risk tolerance. Better to keep powder dry to fight another day if things aren’t going your way.

Set goals – Before you enter a trade, set realistic profit targets and risk/reward ratios. What is the minimum risk/reward you will accept? Many traders use  will not take a trade unless the potential profit is at least three times greater than the risk. For example, if your stop loss is a dollar loss per share, your goal should be a $3 profit. Set weekly, monthly and annual profit goals in dollars or as a percentage of your portfolio, and re-assess them regularly.

Do your homework
– Before the market opens, what is going on around the world? Are overseas markets up or down? Are index futures such as the S&P 500 or Nasdaq 100 exchange-traded funds up or down in pre-market? Index futures are a good way of gauging market mood before the market opens. What economic or earnings data is due out and when? Post a list on the wall in front of you and decide whether you want to trade ahead of an important economic report. For most traders, it is better to wait until the report is released than take unnecessary risk. Pros trade based on probabilities. They don’t gamble.

Trade preparation – Before the trading day, reboot your computer(s) to clear the resident memory (RAM). Whatever trading system and program you use, label major and minor support and resistance levels, set alerts for entry and exit signals and make sure all signals can be easily seen or detected with a clear visual or auditory signal. Your trading area should not offer distractions. Remember, this is a business, and distractions can be costly.

Set exit rules – Most traders make the mistake of concentrating 90% or more of their efforts in looking for buy signals but pay very little attention to when and where to exit. Many traders cannot sell if they are down because they don’t want to take a loss. Get over it or you will not make it as a trader. If your stop gets hit, it means you were wrong. Don’t take it personally. Professional traders lose more trades than they win, but by managing money and limiting losses, they still end up making profits.

Before you enter a trade, you should know where your exits are. There are at least two for every trade. First, what is your stop loss if the trade goes against you? It must be written down. Mental stops don’t count. Second, each trade should have a profit target. Once you get there, sell a portion of your position and you can move your stop loss on the rest of your position to break even if you wish. As discussed above in number three, never risk more than a set percentage of your portfolio on any trade.

Set entry rules
– This comes after the tips for exit rules for a reason: exits are far more important than entries. A typical entry rule could be worded like this: “If signal A fires and there is a minimum target at least three times as great as my stop loss and we are at support, then buy X contracts or shares here.” Your system should be complicated enough to be effective, but simple enough to facilitate snap decisions. If you have 20 conditions that must be met and many are subjective, you will find it difficult if not impossible to actually make trades. Computers often make better traders than people, which may explain why nearly 50% of all trades that now occur on the New York Stock Exchange are computer-program generated. Computers don’t have to think or feel good to make a trade. If conditions are met, they enter. When the trade goes the wrong way or hits a profit target, they exit. They don’t get angry at the market or feel invincible after making a few good trades. Each decision is based on probabilities.

Keep excellent records
– All good traders are also good record keepers. If they win a trade, they want to know exactly why and how. More importantly, they want to know the same when they lose, so they don’t repeat unnecessary mistakes. Write down details such as targets, the entry and exit of each trade, the time, support and resistance levels, daily opening range, market open and close for the day, and record comments about why you made the trade and lessons learned. Also, you should save your trading records so that you can go back and analyze the profit/loss for a particular system, draw-downs (which are amounts lost per trade using a trading system), average time per trade (which is necessary to calculate trade efficiency), and other important factors, and also compare them to a buy-and-hold strategy. Remember, this is a business and you are the accountant.

Perform a post-mortem
– After each trading day, adding up the profit or loss is secondary to knowing the why and how. Write down your conclusions in your trading journal so that you can reference them again later.

Parting Notes
“No one should be trading real money until they have at least 30 to 60 profitable paper trades under their belts in real time in real market conditions before risking real money,” says Novak.

Successful paper trading does not guarantee that you will have success when you begin trading real money and emotions come into play. But successful paper trading does give the trader confidence that the system he or she is going to use actually works.

The exercises in “Trading in the Zone” walk the trader through trading a system based on a simple indicator, entering the market when the indicator gives a buy and exiting when it gives a sell. Deciding on a system is less important than gaining enough skill so that you are able to make trades without second guessing or doubting the decision.

There is no way to guarantee that a trade will make money. The trader’s chances are based on his or her skill and system of winning and losing. There is no such thing as winning without losing. Professional traders know before they enter a trade that the odds are in their favor or they wouldn’t be there. By letting his or her profits ride and cutting losses short, a trader may lose some battles, but he or she will win the war. Most traders and investors do the opposite, which is why they never make money.

Traders who win consistently treat trading as a business. While it’s not a guarantee that you will make money, having a plan is crucial if you want to become consistently successful and survive in the trading game.

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About williamk82

William Kohlmann is a student at Grand Canyon University’s Ken Blanchard College of Business where he is earning his Masters in Business Administration with an Emphasis in Finance while working full-time for a leading financial institution. He is an Eagle Scout from Troop 105 of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, aspires to be an entrepreneur, and currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his beautiful wife, Krystal.
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