Credit unions are proving to be a smart alternative to banks

sept-oct-tfcuCredit unions are on a roll. In March, I wrote about the gains they’ve made in auto lending (“Credit unions rev up for growth”). In the most recent issue of The Federal Credit Union, I write about their equally impressive progress in the mortgage-lending space (“Credit unions gain ground by focusing on member needs“).

Consumers are catching on that these member-owned institutions are a smart alternative to banks and finance companies. Credit unions are increasing their market share and beating out bigger competitors because they’re in business to serve their members, not make a profit.

As I note in this most recent piece, mortgage lending dipped across the board for all lenders during the housing crisis. But credit union lending rebounded in 2010 and began to increase; lending at other institutions, however, continued to fall and then leveled out.

As a result, credit union mortgage growth rates have outstripped bank mortgage growth rates every year since 2008. Credit union market share grew from 1.9 percent of originations in 2005 to nearly 8 percent in 2015—a fourfold increase in just 10 years!

It’s ironic that at about the same time my mortgage story graced the cover of TFCU, news accounts began surfacing of widespread illegal practices at Wells Fargo Bank. The bank was fined a record $185 million by regulators for secretly opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts to boost sales figures. Apparently 2 million sham accounts were opened, and 5,300 employees were fired for ethics violations.

After looking at my article again the other day, I think some of the words carry even more weight in light of the Wells Fargo scandal:

Credit unions were formed to serve the needs of their members, not private investors…Their members-first approach has become a winning formula—superior products and competitive prices, coupled with a high degree of service and loyalty.

If you don’t belong to a credit union, maybe you should. They offer the same products and services you’d get at a large bank but with fewer fees, higher returns on your savings, and lower rates on loans and credit cards. And chances are no one will illegally open an account in your name just to collect a sales commission.

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Start your day in a good mood and get more done

Meditation FaceHow does your day start?

Meditation? Exercise? Reading? Or maybe you have to get the kids ready for school, solve a family crisis or battle traffic.

Arriving at work with a positive attitude isn’t always easy—especially if your day starts with an argument or an accident on the freeway—but there are things you can do to eliminate stress and begin your day in the right frame of mind.

First, it’s important to understand that mood affects productivity. This is especially true with creative endeavors such as writing and design, or in those instances where you interact with customers or work on teams.

A few years ago, researchers Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk studied the work habits of call center representatives at a Fortune 500 company. The representatives who started the day in a good mood delivered superior results and felt more positive after their calls. Colleagues who arrived in a bad mood suffered a dip in productivity of up to 10 percent.

Writing about their research in The Wall Street Journal, Rothbard noted, “Many organizations wrongly assume that employees dealing with things like stressful commutes or worrisome family problems can simply check their emotions at the door. Most can’t. But there are steps that both employees and employers can take to reset the bad moods that compromise job performance.

“One important way employees can reset a negative mood on their own is by creating a so-called intentional transition. That might mean stopping for a coffee, listening to a favorite piece of music or taking a more scenic route to the office. As our findings show, it’s more than just a feel-good strategy—it can set the stage for making a better impression at work.”

Adds Jo Miller in a Daily Muse post, “A positive mood lifts your brain’s dopamine levels, resulting in improved cognitive performance. So build a mood-lifter into your commute, whether it’s listening to music, calling a friend for a virtual coffee chat, watching an uplifting TED talk or catching a highlight from your favorite late night show, and enjoy the resulting boost in brainpower as you arrive at your desk.”

I have to admit that I am rarely early for an appointment, but I find that when I build extra travel time into my schedule my mood is much better. So another simple strategy is to just leave your house 10 minutes earlier than you normally would for work or a meeting.

Having a mantra—a favorite quote, saying or prayer—that you can say to yourself in stressful situations is helpful, too. A mantra keeps you centered and focused on what is important in your life and helps you recognize and eliminate those things that are distractions.

The interesting thing about Rothbard and Wilk’s research is that employees who started their day in a good mood tended to stay that way throughout the day. They felt better after talking with customers and provided better service on subsequent calls. Unfortunately, those who arrived in a bad mood also tended to stay that way.

Managers and organizations can help facilitate better moods by creating a culture that encourages a positive start to the day. Fairly easy tactics include building in time for socializing at the beginning of the work day, having food available (cookies, for example), holding quick motivational meetings and sending emails that contain positive messages about the company’s goals.

How about you? How do you get yourself or your staff in a positive frame of mind?

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Can’t think of a good lead? Try writing a story

Writer at typewriterRemember those boring expository writing assignments in high school? Everything had to fit neatly into a three-step formula: 1) an introductory paragraph with a thesis, 2) supporting paragraphs and 3) a conclusion that summarized your ideas. Those kinds of essays are a struggle to write, and frankly no one likes reading them, either!

Then there’s the tried-and-true inverted pyramid, where you answer the “five W’s” in your lead paragraph and present supporting information in descending order of importance. It’s a form favored by newspapers because readers can glean the essential points from your summary lead, and editors can cut the story from the bottom up without losing any key facts.

This historic lead sentence from an Associated Press reporter is considered one of the earliest examples of the inverted pyramid style:

Washington, Friday, April 14, 1865

The President was shot in a theater to-night and perhaps mortally wounded.

There’s no doubt that the inverted pyramid is an efficient way to write. It satisfied the needs of publishers in the Industrial Age when news was often received by telegraph, pages were laid out by hand and typesetters had to be able to cut stories on the fly if they didn’t fit. In the Digital Age, these concerns are no longer an issue. There is room to tell a good story and employ the techniques of fiction to reel in the reader.

In summarizing the case for abandoning the inverted pyramid, Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute writes, “The inverted pyramid…tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.”

So if you’re struggling to find the perfect lead for an article or press release, perhaps it’s time to break free of the shackles of the inverted pyramid or expository style. Just as news outlets have been experimenting with alternative forms of reporting, PR firms are using new kinds of storytelling to reach and influence audiences.

Here are a few forms you might try:

The hourglass formula: If you give your readers all the news upfront, they may not stick around to read the rest of the story. Try the hourglass approach with important news in the beginning, a transition designed to hold your readers’ interest in the middle and a big conclusion at the end.

The classic fairy tale: We’ve been entertained since childhood with “once-upon-a-time” stories. The formula is pretty simple: Set the scene; introduce a conflict or complication; resolve the conflict/complication; and describe how the story ends. Or try the upside-down version that begins with the ending, gives the background, leads to the main action and then provides a conclusion.

News feature story: Pioneered by The Wall Street Journal, this form seeks to explain the news rather than report it. It typically begins with an anecdotal lead to hook the reader and then moves into a balanced explanation of both sides of an issue. Its hallmark is the “nut graph,” a paragraph that puts everything into context and makes the case for why the reader should care.

Feature/news story: PR writing coach Ann Wylie describes a hybrid form of news release that “has a feature head and an inverted pyramid tail. The beauty of this beast is that it brings the story to life at the top with a feature lead, nut graph and background section…Use it when you have a story that would benefit from a feature lead but that needs a just-the-facts-ma’am resolution.”

There are other forms you might consider, too. For example, infographics, FAQs and listicles have become popular ways of presenting information via the Internet. Choose the form that works best to tell your story and connect with your audience. Give your readers a compelling reason to read what you’ve written, not an empty formula you learned in high school.

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Memorial Day: ‘The Victory for what it lost and gained’

Angel in cemeteryI’ve never lost a family member or friend to war. So it is hard for me to imagine the feelings Memorial Day must stir up in those who have been close to someone who never came home.

Robert Frost lost his best friend, the British poet Edward Thomas, to World War I. Thomas enlisted in the war and was killed in less than two months at Vimy Ridge on Easter, 1917. Frost had urged Thomas to write poetry and published a volume of his poems in the U.S.

“So close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming,” writes Matthew Hollis in a 2011 article for The Guardian (“Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war“). Indeed, Frost called Thomas “the only brother I ever had.”

In his 1920 poem “To E.T.,” Frost struggles to reconcile what is lost and gained in victory when a brother is taken from us in war. Memorial Day seems like a good day to remember not just those who died protecting our freedoms but the ones who were left behind to grieve and wonder what might have been.

To E.T.

By Robert Frost

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

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Standing with others may be the first step to helping them


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived to be 82 and had a remarkable career as a writer, philosopher, scientist and statesman.

I have been thinking these last few days about a quotation attributed to the German writer Goethe:

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”

It’s one of those inspirational quotes you might see on Facebook, but does it hold up under scrutiny?

Having just finished reading Gregory Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart,” which I mentioned a few posts back, I’ve been in a more accepting frame of mind lately. Boyle’s message is that everyone has intrinsic value—even the gang members he works with in East Los Angeles. A Jesuit priest, Boyle notes that Jesus loved everyone, no matter who they were (leper, prostitute, tax collector, criminal—there was room for everyone in the kingdom). Indeed, the only instructions we have from Jesus—and Boyle—are to love one another, especially those who may be different from us. Accept, understand and cherish them for who they are, not for who you wish they could be.

Boyle paraphrases the words of a Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, who says the truest measure of compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. The only way we can eliminate slavery, poverty and other social injustice, Boyle says, is to stand with those who are suffering: “We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing.”

This is heady stuff—and hard to do. I suppose it is the difference between handing a homeless person a few bucks and inviting them to have lunch with you at Denny’s. It is far easier to give someone money and be on your way, thinking that you have helped in some small way. But whether we look at a homeless person as Goethe might or through Boyle’s eyes, we diminish that person when we walk away without recognizing our kinship and their worth as a human being.

How do we help someone become the person they are capable of becoming? I think it begins with resisting the temptation to judge them or impose our values on them. If we are willing to love them and stand with them, as Boyle suggests, we can’t help but nudge them closer to their potential.

A big part of leadership and management is influencing and changing behavior. We know that a leader’s job is to create expectations. We know from psychology, management science and experience that when you expect more, you generally get more. When you expect less, you get less. You treat people the way you want to be treated.

Boyle illustrates this principle over and over in his book. Between the poignant stories of life and death are the truly human and funny incidents he relates—taking a homie to a clothing store to buy a suit, treating homies to a nice restaurant meal or flying them to Washington to meet the president. He accepts these homeboys and girls for who they are, but he also says, in effect, “When you’re with me, you can expect to be treated as an equal, as a member of my family. You are my kin.”

I think we can rewrite Goethe for modern times (à la Boyle) as: “If I accept you as others see you, I will make you worse; however, if I validate you and treat you as one of my own, I will help you become the person you are capable of becoming.”

Boyle shows us that it takes courage and faith to change our perceptions and behavior towards those who are on the margins, but it is possible. I think the lessons from Tattoos on the Heart are also transferable to our everyday lives. We can’t expect employees, family members or friends to change if we don’t first meet them where they are—then move forward together in the realization that we must remove the barriers between “us” and “them” before we can help someone become the person they are capable of becoming.

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In sales, the first or last person up may have an advantage

Numbers 1-10

The order in which you present can make a big difference.

Is there an advantage to being the first or last person when giving a presentation, interviewing for a job or making a sales call? You might think that it wouldn’t make much difference, but it turns out that it does. Researchers call it the primacy and recency effect. We are more likely to recall the first or last things we hear, while the items in the middle are the least likely to be remembered.

I recently experienced this firsthand. I got estimates from four HVAC contractors to put a new heating and air-conditioning system in my house. The first contractor I spoke to was the one who got my business. The last contractor to give me an estimate came in second. The other two, the ones in the middle, fell off my radar screen.

To be fair, the first contractor’s price was the most competitive, and I liked the system he recommended best. He also was the most persistent in following up, so that made a difference, too. But the others were reputable companies, all were prompt in giving me estimates, and all had fairly similar recommendations.

It might be the primacy and recency effect plays a bigger role in our decision-making than we realize. Researchers at the Harvard and Wharton Business Schools found after analyzing 9,000 MBA interviews over 10 years that candidates interviewed earlier in the process received a more objective evaluation. Other career experts have said there is a recency bias because later candidates in the interview process are freshest in the minds of selection committees.

As early as the 1880s, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus was doing memory research and discovered the serial position effect, which is the tendency to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items the worst. When asked to recall a list of items in any order, people tend to begin with the end of the list (the most recent items). Among earlier items, the first few are remembered more frequently than the middle items.

Incidentally, it was Ebbinghaus who first noted the “forgetting curve,” which describes the exponential loss of information we have learned. The sharpest decline occurs in the first 20 minutes, and the decline is significant through the first hour. The curve levels off after 24 hours. Perhaps this explains why I can never remember names or passwords!

Ebbinghaus illusion

The Ebbinghaus illusion: Which orange circle do you think is larger? Actually, they are both the same size.

Ebbinghaus was a fascinating man, and I can’t resist mentioning another of his discoveries called the Ebbinghaus illusion. It’s an optical illusion that alters our perception of size. In the best-known version (pictured here), two circles of identical size are placed near each other but are surrounded by different-sized circles. The circle surrounded by the small circles appears larger, but, of course, it is not.

The upshot of Ebbinghaus’ research and later studies is that we should be aware of memory limitations whenever we are competing for someone’s time or business. I have to give that first HVAC contractor a lot of credit for asking me where I was in my decision-making process. When I told him that he was the first one that I had talked to, he wanted to know if I would be talking to others and when I would be making my decision. He then made a point to follow up during the week, so I would continue to keep him top-of-mind.

You can do the same if you are competing for someone’s business or being considered for a job. Ask how long the process will take. What are the decision steps along the way? Then come up with reasons to reach out to your potential client or boss. The most obvious is a thank-you note after the interview or meeting. You can follow up a little later with additional thoughts or questions you might have about the project or job. I also forward to potential clients articles that I think they might be interested in or ideas I have for future projects.

The primacy and recency effect also is at play in meetings, as this YouTube video by business coach Paul Archer demonstrates. We tend to remember the first things said at meetings and the very end of meetings. To run an effective meeting, it’s important to keep meetings brief, have an agenda, get to key items upfront and wrap up your meeting with a good summary.

So take advantage of the primacy and recency effect, and make the most of your beginnings and endings!

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‘Because you matter’

A small group I’m in has been reading Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, which is based on Boyle’s 25-plus years of work with gang members in East Los Angeles. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit enterprise that provides jobs, training, counseling and hope to gang members who are trying to turn around their lives.

Tattoos on the Heart

Greg Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart” is chock-full of lessons.

In the next-to-last chapter, Boyle grapples with what constitutes “success” in his ministry. In the gritty Pico-Aliso area of LA where he works, gang shootings, poverty and pain are commonplace. Boyle wonders if he has made a difference by the standards of the business world. He can’t really point to a dramatic improvement in outcomes. After all, this is a community that is constantly upended by violence and death, and he has presided over the funerals of 168 murdered gang members. But as he amply demonstrates in his book, success is not always measured by results.

Sometimes success is just reaching out to another human being and reminding them that they matter.

Case in point: The other day, I found myself at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, VA. I was between meetings and needed a place to check emails and do some work on my laptop. It was after school, and the place was humming with activity. Here and there, I saw kids being tutored. Right next to me, an older high school student was helping a younger one do his math homework.

A couple of tables away, an elderly woman sat in a wheelchair. Next to her was a young woman. From time to time, I could hear the older woman’s voice, which was firm and full of purpose. At one point, I heard her say to the young woman, “No one should have to endure that kind of hardship in their life.”

It became clear to me that the young woman has having some financial difficulties and was being counseled by the older woman. “You need not worry any more,” the older woman said. “I will help you. I will make sure your daughter has what she needs.” I heard her matter-of-fact instructions to the young woman to open a savings account for her daughter and that she would deposit money into the account.

At the end of their conversation, the older woman asked, “Do you know why I am doing this for you?” There was silence. “Can you guess?” Again, silence. Then came the clincher: “I am doing this for you because you matter. You matter.”

A few minutes later, I looked up and the two were gone. I had to wonder if the conversation even took place. It seemed so out of place for a library in affluent Fairfax County.

On the surface, two women from different backgrounds and different generations met at a public library. I suspect that they had very little in common, yet their lives intersected and they were both enriched. As Boyle notes in Tattoos on the Heart, success is when we see in others what they at first cannot see in themselves—and then we help them discover that they have value and their lives matter.

Boyle talks about breaking down the barriers of jurisdiction and building kinship. This can only happen when we’re willing to step out of our own world and see with new eyes. “Close both eyes; see with the other one,” he says. “Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new, expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.”

Now, that’s success.


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Do you have the rights to that photo you’re posting?

antique cameraWhen’s the last time you posted a photo to your Facebook page? If you’re like many Facebook users, it may have been just a few minutes ago.

It turns out we’re uploading images on social media at mind-boggling rates. A few years ago, Facebook revealed that its users were uploading 350 million photos per day!

Facebook users collectively have uploaded over 250 billion photos, an average of 217 photos per account. In 2014, Snapchat reported 800 million snaps per day and over 1 billion Snapchat “stories” (video and photos that last 24 hours).

That’s well over a billion images flying onto the Internet every day! And that doesn’t even count Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn and others.

Where do they all these photos come from? Most are pictures we take ourselves; but for companies and small business owners interested in creating a professional image on a budget, they are increasingly coming from stock photo sites. Stock photography has grown into a multi-billion dollar business with millions of low-cost, high quality images available for purchase or free downloading from hundreds of online, searchable databases.

In the early days of stock photography, editors, advertising agencies and designers had to manually sort through printed images to choose the photos they wanted. With the advent of digital photography, you could view photos on CDs; then, in the early 1990s, the first online, searchable stock photo libraries were introduced.

Nowadays, anyone can view screen after screen of downloadable images on just about any topic. But ease of use has become both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it is so easy to grab digital images, and there are so many to choose from. It’s a curse because most people don’t understand the basics of photo usage and can get into trouble for using images they don’t own.

You might find hundreds of images you like from a simple Google image search, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to use them. Time and again, I see bloggers and small business owners using photography that isn’t theirs. “I got it off the Internet” seems to be the common refrain.

I spend a fair amount of time looking for images, sometimes for clients but often for this blog. For The Wayward Journey, I use at least one image per post. I generally don’t pay for those images, and you don’t have to either—if you follow the rules.

Keep in mind that original images are always the best. These are photos that you take yourself, so there is never any question about ownership and whether you have a right to use them (except as noted below under “permissions”). If you’re handy with a camera, I encourage you to take at least some of your own photographs.

The problem is that we’re not all good photographers, or we don’t always have the time to shoot images to meet the varied needs of our clients or blog. So the next best thing, if budget is a concern, is to find photos that we can use for free or for very little money.

You can Google “free stock photos” and find plenty of free photo sites. This article from Inc. has a list of the better-known ones to get you started. Photos you see on Wikipedia come from Wikimedia Commons, a good place to find historical photos such as pictures of famous people. Be prepared to spend quite a bit of time searching for photos on these free sites because the selection and quality are hit or miss.

Finding a good photo is only the first step. Then there is the bewildering task of understanding all of the rights and restrictions attached to photos. Here are some considerations:

  • Royalty-free. People are often confused by the terms “free” and “royalty-free.” A royalty-free image is not necessarily a free image. It simply means that once you’ve acquired it (perhaps paid a small licensing fee), you do not have to pay the owner any additional fees. However, you still have to follow the rules regarding its use!
  • Rights to the image. Most images, unless they are in the public domain, have restrictions on their use. Rarely will a photographer give up all rights to a photo. Always check to see if commercial use is allowed and under what circumstances. Most sites have a separate licensing/terms of agreement page. Take the time to read it!
  • Photo credits. Some photos must be credited, which usually means giving the name of the photographer and a link to the photo website. Check to see if attribution is required.
  • Permissions. You may need to get permission from the people who appear in a photo if it is for commercial use. Most stock photo houses have already secured these releases and will tell you that. Trademarked items and works of art are also protected and may require permission from the owner if they appear in the photo.

You may be thinking, what could possibly happen if I use a photo I found on Google in my blog? Actually, many stock photo companies have gotten quite aggressive in protecting their images. Some are notorious for going after small business people, even churches and nonprofits groups, if they discover their images are being used without permission. They may demand payments that are much higher than the value of the photos and threaten legal action. With so many avenues for acquiring photos legitimately, why take that chance?

Photos add a whole new dimension to your social media posts and can increase visits to your pages and website. Take the time to select good images and to understand the restrictions on their use.

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Does writing well still matter? Let me count the ways

Man taking notes on paperKudos to Deborah Brody of Deborah Brody Marketing Communications for launching a new feature called “On Writing.” Each month, she’s interviewing a communications professional on the craft of writing and then posting the interview on her blog. This month, I had the pleasure of discussing why writing well still matters in a digital/emoji world.

Below are some excerpts from my interview, but I suggest that you take the time to explore Deborah’s blog. She’s been blogging since 2008 and writes regularly on marketing communications. A writer and consultant with 20 years of public relations, advertising and marketing experience, her firm provides high-level writing and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits.

On writing: For Jay Morris, writing is a journey

We’ve reached the fourth edition of On Writing, and this time, I asked Jay Morris to share his insights. Jay, who runs his own PR consultancy, has an extensive writing background as a journalist and editor. He also writes one of my favorite blogs, The Wayward Journey.

1. What role does writing play in your work and how important a skill is it? 

Writing is by far the most important “deliverable” I provide my clients. My projects often begin with a strategic communications assessment, but I almost always end up writing something for the client. It could be web content, a blog post, a press release or a speech—some type of written communication that meets a need and tells the client’s story.

2. Does writing well still matter in a digital/text/emoji world? 

Writing does matter, and I think it matters even more in a world where there is a way too much mediocre content. If you want to distinguish yourself—if you really want to stand out—you need to be able to communicate effectively. Whether it’s a tweet or a long-form journal article, put some effort into writing it well. Readers will take notice and reward you for it.

3What’s the best advice you’ve received or would give on how to improve writing skills? 

An English professor once wrote on one of my papers, “You seem to understand the concepts, but your writing is unpracticed.” That was a bruise to my ego, but I took what he said to heart and worked hard at improving my writing. I practiced writing clearly and concisely. My advice to anyone who wants to write would be the same: practice, practice, practice! Just as musicians and athletes practice for hours each day, writers need to flex their creative muscles, too. Look for ways to stretch your skills, try new forms and experiment with your style and voice. Blogging and journaling are two excellent ways of doing that.

To read more, visit Deborah’s blog.

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