Mountaintop experiences and valley duties

Men fishing near at the channel marker at Barnegat Inlet.

Men fishing near the channel marker at Barnegat Inlet.

This past weekend, I spent some time in New Jersey—first on Long Beach Island and then in the Pine Barrens. It was cloudy and rainy when we walked along the shore, one of those days where the sky and sea form a canvas of gray. Our hike through the Pine Barrens benefited from lots of sunshine and a crisp cool morning—optimum conditions for walking. Yet, along the trail, we hardly saw any evidence of wildlife. A lone bird (perhaps a pine warbler?) and a small green snake were the extent of our encounters. As I walked along the flat, sandy trail, noting that the vista of pines and occasional cedars never changed, I thought about how life isn’t always a series of grandiose panoramas or mountaintop experiences. In fact, most of the time, we are walking in the valley, where life seems fairly mundane and predictable. But it’s in those valley moments that we have time to meditate on our mountaintop experiences, put into practice what we’ve learned and examine life a little closer for clues of diversity and change.

The weekend before my trip to New Jersey, I was at Greensville Correctional Center for a Kairos 4-Day Weekend. Kairos is a prison ministry program that I’ve participated in since 2011. Kairos weekends are without a doubt mountaintop experiences. In the days following a Kairos weekend, most of us on the team are still on a spiritual high. It’s hard to go back to work and focus on routine matters. When you drink from a fire hose, the trickle of a water fountain seems entirely inadequate. You want more.

Walking through the Pine Barrens with my brother Barry and our friend Jim, I joked that the trees would soon thin out and we would find ourselves on the edge of a spectacular view. Of course, that did not happen. Each bend in the trail brought us closer to more pines, and more pines. I thought about one of the talks from our Kairos weekend called “Walking in God’s Grace.” The talk reminds us of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountaintop. While on the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him, and Jesus is called “son” by a voice in the sky. For Peter, James and John, who are with Jesus, it is the ultimate mountaintop experience. Peter is thinking, “I don’t want this to end,” so he volunteers to put up three shelters—one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. But before Peter can do anything, the experience is over. Jesus has returned to normal and is leading them down the mountain, back to their everyday world.

As we tell the residents of Greensville, “A mountaintop experience prepares us for valley duty.” It’s not easy to walk in the valley, especially when that valley is a penitentiary and your time there might be measured in decades. Nor is it easy for those of us on the outside to return to our lives, which are filled with a multitude of obligations and little time for the things that we know from our mountaintop experience are important.

When I got home from Kairos and was going through the mail, I noticed a letter from Greensville. It was from one of the residents who sat at my table last October. I put it aside and thought, “I will read this when I’ve come down from my mountain.” Returning home from New Jersey, I was ready for the letter. After 25 years of incarceration, this man will be released in a few months. During his Kairos weekend, he shared his fears about starting anew. Over the last few months, we’ve seen a dramatic change for the better in his demeanor.

In his letter, he wrote, “I don’t fear going forward, I don’t dread going forward, I steadfastly look forward. Most of all, I’m not alone, and as long as I hold strong to Jesus and remain in the care of God, He won’t allow me to fail. Oh, I know it won’t be easy, but I’m alright with that now.”

The valley is where the real work is done. It’s the crucible that forges our souls and tests our resolve. I have no doubt my Kairos brother will persevere. He will walk through the valley and out of those gates with a smile on his face. And when I find myself down in the valley, in a really low place, I’ll return to his letter and reread it, a smile on my face, too.

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When’s the last time you used a map to get somewhere?

Map with model carBefore there was GPS, before there were navigation apps, there were maps. I’m talking about paper maps that you kept in your car’s glove compartment or stuffed behind the seat. You could get a pretty good map for free at a rest stop or buy one for a quarter at a gas station. Or you could join AAA and get all the maps you wanted, including TripTiks, which my parents relied on for years.

Maps seemed mostly a guy thing. Guys pored over them, plotting the best route. If a bunch of guys got together, they’d look at the map and brag about all the shortcuts they knew.

When I was a scout leader, all of the dads would gather around the hood of someone’s car, and we’d spread out the maps. First came the roadmaps, then a hand-drawn map of some remote campsite that was off the beaten path. “Not to scale” took on new meaning as we followed the map onto unmarked roads, wondering all the while, “Is this right? Surely, we should have seen the next turn by now.”

Maps were a guy’s excuse for not asking for directions. Better to drive 10 miles out of your way than to admit that you had no idea where you were. At some point, you’d get back on the map, right?

Now technology has eliminated our need to ask for directions. It also has reduced driving times and increased fuel efficiency, all good things. But I think it is has made us dumber about geography and less adventurous about trying new routes. If you plug your destination into a navigation system, you don’t really need to pay much attention to where you are going. You just let the GPS take you there.

Of course, navigation systems aren’t foolproof; you still need some common sense. For example, my car’s GPS doesn’t like Rock Creek Parkway. It doesn’t believe it exists, even though the parkway was completed in 1936.

Newer apps like Waze are good because they provide real-time information like traffic conditions, accidents and police activity, along with alternative routes and posted speed limits.

There are also a number of apps that can save you money on gas and reduce your fuel consumption. Kayla Matthews did a roundup a few months ago that’s worth looking at. Here are a few she mentioned in her post, “8 Unique Apps to Help You Save Gas Money”:

GasBuddy. I’ve had this free app for several years. It relies on users to find the cheapest gas prices, which are updated daily. You can search gas stations by zip code or let the app use your location.

AAA TripTik. You don’t have to be a member of AAA to use this app’s trip-planning features. Besides maps, the app lists nearest gas stations as well as nearby hotels, restaurants and pharmacies.

Gas Manager. This freemium app tracks gas usage, fuel economy and expenses. Tracking the first 10 fill-ups is free; then you have to pay $3.99 to unlock unlimited fill-up tracking.

By and large, I am happy to give up paper maps for smartphone apps. I remember too many occasions when I was driving blind and just praying I would get to my destination on time—like my best friend’s wedding or my first job interview after college. Google Maps would have been real nice back then.

As with anything in life, having a notion of where you’re going is important. That’s why I still keep those old-fashioned paper maps in my car. Without a roadmap, you may just find yourself in the middle of nowhere.

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10 demographic trends that are shaping our world

Globe with pushpinsDemographic trends have always fascinated me, not just as factoids to be used in a clever infographic, but as vital intelligence that can help us better understand consumers, target markets and engage customers.

A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center published “10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world,” essential reading for anyone seeking insight into how our world is changing.

Here’s a summary of those top 10 trends. I recommend viewing the full article, written by D’Vera Cohn, because it has some very good charts.

  1. Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

  2. Asia has replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the U.S. In a reversal of one of the largest mass migrations in modern history, net migration flows from Mexico to the U.S. turned negative between 2009 and 2014, as more Mexicans went home than arrived in the U.S.

  3. America’s demographic changes are shifting the electorate—and American politics. The 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history due to strong growth among Hispanic eligible voters, particularly U.S.-born youth.

  4. Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have likely surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation and differ significantly from their elders in many ways. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation.

  5. Women’s role in the labor force and leadership positions has grown dramatically. The labor force participation rate for American women has risen steadily since the 1960s. In fact, mothers were the sole or primary breadwinner in a record 40% of all households with children in 2011.

  6. The American family is changing. After decades of declining marriage rates, the share of American adults who have never been married is at a historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline in the U.S., while divorce, remarriage and cohabitation are on the rise. About one-in-six American kids now live in a blended family. And the roles of mothers and fathers are converging, due in part to the rise of breadwinner moms.

  7. The share of Americans who live in middle class households is shrinking. The share of U.S. adults living in middle-income households fell to 50% in 2015, after more than four decades in which those households served as the nation’s economic majority.

  8. Christians are declining as a share of the U.S. population, and the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion has grown. While the U.S. remains home to more Christians than any other country, the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian dropped from 78% in 2007 to 71% in 2014. By contrast, the religiously unaffiliated have surged seven percentage points in that time span to make up 23% of U.S. adults last year.

  9. The world’s religious makeup will look a lot different by 2050: Over the next four decades, Christians will remain the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion, mostly because Muslims are younger and have more children than any other religious group globally.

  10. The world is aging. The demographic future for the U.S. and the world looks very different from the recent past. Growth from 1950 to 2010 was rapid — the global population nearly tripled, and the U.S. population doubled. However, population growth from 2010 to 2050 is projected to be significantly slower and is expected to tilt strongly to the oldest age groups, both globally and in the U.S.

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Is fear holding you back? Consider these three lessons

girl running from imaginary monster

Maybe it’s time you stopped running from your fears and faced up to them.

Napoleon Hill once said that fear is the single greatest obstacle to success. Yet, even with success, fear does not go away. Instead, it burrows into your subconscious in more subtle and insidious ways. You get comfortable, and you hardly notice your fears. But when comfort and safety are your refuge, how much risk are you willing to take?

Max Lucado, in his book Fearless, poses an interesting question: “Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds?” No, he says. “The worship of safety emasculates greatness.”

I have been meditating on some fears of my own that I need to overcome to get to the next level in my business. Identifying your fears is the first step to conquering them. Here are three that you might recognize in your life:

1) The fear of not being good enough

In the early 1980s, I wrote several freelance articles for City Paper, DC’s alternative newspaper. My day job was writing a Washington newsletter for the National Restaurant Association. I also freelanced for several other publications. One day after work, I met the editor of City Paper for a drink. I announced with some fanfare that I was thinking about going back to school to get a master’s degree in journalism and that I had set my sights on Columbia University, one of the top journalism schools in the country. I thought he would be excited, clap me on the back and say, “Jay, that’s a fabulous idea!” Instead, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “If you want to be a journalist, then be a journalist. You don’t need to go to back to school for that, you just need to do it.”

It occurred to me as I drove home that night that he was right. I had gotten it into my head that despite my success in writing, I needed more education. If I wanted to be “real” journalist, I would have to go back to school. I didn’t have the right credentials, and of course the solution was to go to Columbia. This is how fear gets inside our head, creates insecurity and convinces us that we’re not good enough. We don’t have the experience. We didn’t go to the right schools. The reality is that for most careers, unless they require technical knowledge, we just need to believe in ourselves and go for it.

I did not go to Columbia or pursue a career in journalism. I found out I really liked association work. In addition to writing the weekly newsletter, I contributed to the association’s magazine and wrote congressional testimony and speeches. I traveled with the president and did media relations. In short, I was doing it, and I thrived on it—in part because I abandoned my fear that I wasn’t following the right path to success.

2) The fear of not being perfect

When I was at the restaurant association, I met Jerry, who worked in the public information office at the Small Business Administration. Jerry wanted to start a trade association for franchisees. He invited me and several other association professionals to join him on the project. For the better part of a year, we met every few months to review Jerry’s ideas. He’d pass around research that he’d done on franchising, membership benefits the association might offer, ideas on how to structure the organization, etc. I was excited because I had never been part of a start-up. But as time went on, I became frustrated. Jerry never seemed to get past the development stage. With each meeting, there were more charts, more franchises he said we needed to study and more work that needed to be done before we could get started. Then Jerry got an offer to work in one of the SBA’s regional offices in California. He took the job, and that’s the last I heard of Jerry and his plan for a franchisee association.

Jerry’s story isn’t unique. I see that same caution and over-analysis in my work sometimes, too. The fear that things aren’t perfect keeps us from following through on our goals. Because the blog isn’t perfect, we don’t push the “publish” button. We linger longer on assignments than we should. We decide not to submit the proposal because it needs work.

The fear of not being perfect has a co-conspirator. It’s call procrastination. When we keep tinkering with a plan, wordsmithing a document or studying a problem, that’s the foot-dragging of procrastination. I’m not suggesting that we rush into new projects without doing our homework, but I do think that our fears can sabotage us before we even get to the starting block.

We tend to forget that nothing is perfect. You can’t prepare for every single contingency. At some point, you just have to take the plunge. Push the publish button, give the speech, perform the song. Chances are it is ready. Chances are it will be well received. Heck, it might even be great!

3) The fear of not being accepted

It was the summer of 2008, and I was riding in a church van to the airport, where we would board a plane and ultimately arrive in Girdwood, Alaska, for a 10-day mission trip. I had never been on a mission trip, and I didn’t know what to expect. And while we all attended the same church (Annandale United Methodist), I didn’t know the people on the trip that well, either. I was still new to the church and frankly wondering whether I had made the right decision to go. It had seemed like a pretty good idea when I signed up—see Alaska, do some good and get to know people. As I sat in the van listening to all of those voices happily chatting away, I suddenly felt alone.

For 29 years I was married, but now I was going through a divorce. My life had been turned upside down. This trip seemed to me a way to right it, a way to get my bearings. I was excited to be going, but I was also weighed down by the past. Just walking through the airport gave me the willies. It reminded me of other trips in better times when my wife would have been at my side.

But a funny thing happened on that Girdwood trip. A lot of my anxieties melted away. Looking back on it now, many of those fears were magnified by my state of mind. But that’s how fear gets the best of us. I’ve seen the fear of not being accepted—one of our most basic fears—grab a hold of otherwise successful people. The boss who wants to be liked by his employees, so he punts on tough decisions. The CEO who doesn’t want to rock the boat when it comes to board members. The politician who pays more attention to the polls than the real needs of the country.

Taming the fear of not being accepted starts with accepting who you are and recognizing that you have intrinsic worth. It begins with understanding that you have a purpose that’s bigger than you are. On a mission trip, that’s not hard. Those 10 days made a huge difference in my life. I often think that God threw me a life-preserver that week, and thankfully I was smart enough to grab it.

The trip opened my eyes to what my life could look like, and I saw that I would be okay. It renewed my passion for life. On the flight home, I added to those voices that were laughing and carrying on. As it turns out, Girdwood was the beginning of something very special. I now count the people on that trip as my best friends.

When we let go of our fears, we free ourselves to grow and serve others. Like the traveler in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we have a choice:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s easy to take the beaten path, the one that leads to safety, comfort and fewer fears. But the road less traveled, the one that seems scary at first, that’s the one that leads to real success.

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Make talking to your customers a learning experience

Man talking on phoneOne of the things I like about my line of work is that I’m always learning something new. Over the past year, I’ve learned about cybersecurity, satellite technology, electric utilities and asset/liability management, to name a few of the topics I’ve written about for my clients. In each case, I got my information the old-fashioned way: I talked to people.

For example, I was recently asked to write an article on automatic circuit reclosers. What the heck is an automatic circuit recloser, you might ask? Well, I put that question to one of the engineers I interviewed. He gave an answer that was easy to understand and that will stick with me long after the article is published. “It’s like a ground fault interrupter (GFI) outlet in your house, only on a much larger scale,” he explained. “Reclosers on electric power lines work the same way, only they’re programmable and can reclose multiple times.” That explanation was better than any I could have looked up online or read in a book.

The interview is a tried and true means of getting information, and I highly recommend it. I write frequently about credit unions, and I can learn more from talking to a handful of credit union executives on the phone than from reading a pile of trade publications. It helps that, in my case, I’m often interviewing them for an article, but you can use the same technique to learn more about your clients’ business or your own industry.

It’s amazing the things you can pick up by simply talking to your customers or members—not just information about their company or area of expertise, but valuable intelligence that can help you improve your own business and better serve your customers.

I have a client whose business is designing and installing satellite communication systems. She and I are working on a new website for the company. Last week, we were on the phone comparing designs and features we liked on other websites. The conversation turned to what makes a good “About” page. This will be the third website we’ve built together, and I’m seeing an evolution in her thinking that I like. A previous site took a traditional approach to the About page: formal portraits of the company’s principals with standard bios. Now she was showing me examples of About pages that were much more creative, less formal and incorporated design elements with content to create a fresh take on what a company’s all about. It made me think about my own website (very traditional in that regard) and the fact that I haven’t updated it since I started my business in 2011. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s time for me to make some changes, too.

Learning comes in many forms. You may not always have time to read a book, take a class or sign up for a seminar, but you can (or should) be able to find time to talk to your customers, members or stakeholders. Don’t ever discount the value of learning from them, whether it’s from a conversation, interview or a quick survey.

There’s also a business advantage to talking to your customers. Paul Schoemaker, writing in Inc., suggests that if you take the time to learn from your customers, you’ll know what they want even before they do. By seeing the world through their eyes, you’ll be able to anticipate their needs and beat the competition.

As Schoemaker says, “Try to listen with a third ear, as an anthropologist would, to what your customers are saying to you. If you can truly hear them, they’ll tell you all you need to know.”

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Give me your tired, your poor, your aging baby boomers

Woodstock Music Festival

Believe it or not: Everyone who went to Woodstock is old enough to collect social security. Photo by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell.

The generation that wore bell-bottoms and tie-dye shirts, smoked pot, marched for peace, started a sexual revolution and vowed never to become part of the establishment is getting old. I mean geriatric old. The oldest baby boomers are turning 70 this year.

I’m a boomer myself, but I came a little later. I missed out on Woodstock and was too young for Vietnam. Yet I see plenty of gray hair when I look in the mirror.

My generation was supposed to “stay forever young.” After all, we’re the “me” generation, and the biggest self-indulgence for us has been our bodies—making sure we stay healthy and active and don’t get old and flabby.

Baby boomers jogged, Jazzercised, Bowflexed and Botoxed their way past 50, pushing the boundaries of middle age. First 40 was the new 30. Then 60 was the new 50. Now 70 is the new 60. Baby boomers don’t slow down. They just get knee replacements and pain injections.

Hate to say it, but a lot of people in my generation now carry AARP cards, ask for senior discounts, collect social security and have a calendar full of doctor’s appointments.

I read some statistics recently about baby boomers that really surprised me. If you’re a boomer, you might want to sit down because all those fantasies you’ve had about being young, invincible and healthy are about to get crushed. Sorry.

  • Researchers at West Virginia University found that baby boomers are more likely than their parents to have chronic diseases, and 39 percent of boomers are obese (compared to 29 percent of adults in the previous generation).
  • Boomers are also more inactive, with 52 percent of them reporting no physical activity (compared with only 17.4 percent of the previous generation). Baby boomers are also more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol than their parents.
  • Overall, 32 percent of adults in the previous generation reported they were in “excellent” health compared to only 13 percent of baby boomers.

How can this be? The generation that supposedly made healthy eating and fitness a lifestyle choice has been backsliding. Too many hours sitting in front of a computer; too many processed foods and snacks; and too many micro-beers.

The upshot is that our generation is expected to live longer but be sicker. And the bad news doesn’t stop there. We’ve fallen short compared to our parents when it comes to retirement savings, too.

We may be the first generation to enter our golden years less well off than previous generations. A lot of it has to do with the demise of the traditional pension plan and the shift to 401(k) plans.

  • Only 4.2 percent of employees aged 50-55 have a pension benefit, notes the Center for Retirement Research. In comparison, 37 percent of those 75 and older receive pension benefits.
  • A Fidelity Investments survey found that almost half of all baby boomers will not be able to sufficiently cover basic living expenses in retirement without making adjustments to their lifestyles.
  • On top of that, boomers took the biggest hit to their net worth during the recession. And many who lost their jobs as a result of the downturn have not been able to find work that pays as well.
  • The Center for Retirement Research reports that the typical household facing retirement has only $42,000 in 401(k) savings and will rely on social security for 70 percent of retirement income.


No wonder suicides are up for baby boomers. Since 2007, boomers have had the highest rate of suicide of any age group in the U.S., when, historically, people between the ages of 40 and 64 have had one of the lowest rates.

But let’s not go there. Instead, let’s vow to eat healthy, exercise regularly and throw a few more dollars into our 401(k) plans. We’re not getting any younger, you know.

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Credit unions rev up for auto loan growth

TFCU auto lendingYou might say that reports of the automobile industry’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite sales falling to as low as 10.4 million vehicles in 2009 (due to the recession and Americans postponing new-car purchases), light vehicle sales reached their highest level ever (17.5 million) in 2015. And this year may be even bigger.

In my cover story (“Auto Lending: Credit Unions Rev Up for Growth”) in the most recent issue of The Federal Credit Union magazine, I explore what it means to the nation’s credit unions, which are seeing remarkable growth in auto lending.

The CliffsNotes version is that credit unions are gaining market share, and credit union auto loan growth has been in the double digits for the last three years.

Here are some trends worth watching in 2016 from Stacey Doyle, senior auto industry analyst for TrueCar (who I interviewed for the article):

  • Light trucks (pickups and SUVs) are expected to outsell cars.
  • Millennials’ share of the auto market will increase to about 21 percent.
  • Baby boomers will buy the most cars (the average age of a car buyer is 54).
  • Loan terms will continue to get longer (72 months or more).
  • Leasing will remain popular (40 percent of luxury vehicles are leased).

According to Automotive News, the boom in U.S. auto sales is driven by low gasoline prices, pent-up demand, widespread credit availability, an increase in leasing and employment gains.

Trucks, SUVs and crossovers have set the pace, jumping 13 percent in 2015. Car demand, on the other hand, fell 2.3 percent in 2015.

As always, kudos to my friends at NAFCU for producing a solid magazine. And special thanks to Curt Long, NAFCU’s chief economist and director of research, for his help with industry trends and data.

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Tips for making your writing plain, clear and scrupulous

pencilsThe same year Congress passed Obamacare, another monumental piece of legislation made its way to the president’s desk: The Plain Writing Act of 2010. Okay, Okay, there were no floor fights over The Plain Writing Act, no demagoguing or name-calling, no threats of a government shutdown. Its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, was hardly a national figure, and the entire bill weighed in at a mere two-and-a-half pages (compared to the 2,700-page Affordable Care Act). Still, you might say it was one small victory for clear writing.

I came across the actual bill the other day when I was looking at a guide on “Clear Writing Through Critical Thinking” published by UpWrite Press for a Graduate School USA course. I presume the guide was developed for government workers in response to the act, which requires federal agencies to communicate with us citizens using plain language.

I have to say, I like the act’s definition of “plain writing”:

PLAIN WRITING.—The term ‘‘plain writing’’ means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

I also like the guide’s “Seven Traits of Writing,” originally developed by researcher Paul Diederich in the 1960s. According to the guide, Diederich asked 50 professionals to identify the qualities that make writing strong. The group came up with hundreds of qualities which were then organized into seven traits. These traits became the basis for teaching writing in many states:

1.  Ideas (developing and supporting a strong main point)
  The piece focuses on a main point.
  Supporting points are logically developed and well explained.
  Information is accurate, precise, complete and current.

2.  Organization (arranging your ideas in the best order)
   The writing has a strong opening, middle and closing.
   The organization fits with the audience and purpose.
   Details follow a clear order.
   Transitions link sentences, paragraphs and sections.
   Lists make information accessible.

3.  Voice (addressing your audience effectively)
   The tone is positive, polite, confident and convincing.
   The piece shows attention to the reader’s perspective.
   The voice connects with and encourages the reader.

4.  Words (choosing the best words for your audience)
•   Words are conversational and understandable.
   Key words and technical terms are precise and defined.
   Language respects gender, ethnicity and ability.

5.  Sentences (using smooth-reading sentences)
   Sentences are concise and easy to read.
   Lengths and patterns are varied.
   Active and passive voice are used effectively.

6.  Correctness (following the rules for language use)
   Grammar, punctuation, spelling and mechanics are correct.
   Correctness makes communication clear.

7.  Design (presenting a clean, easy-to-read finished document)
   Format is complete and consistent.
   Page design makes the document attractive and easy to read.

You can’t go wrong following these seven traits. Yet, as good as they are, can anyone (besides Strunk & White) match George Orwell for succinctness when it comes to dispensing writing advice?

George OrwellAs a bonus, here are Orwell’s six questions that a “scrupulous writer” should always ask (from his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”):

1.  What am I trying to say?
2.  What words will express it?
3.  What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4.  Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
5.  Could I put it more shortly?
6.  Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

And here are Orwell’s six rules of style (from the same essay):

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.  Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.  Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Now that’s worth taping to your computer monitor, along with the definition of plain writing.

(Incidentally, if you’re curious about what the government has done to implement The Plain Writing Act, check out

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The afternoon is bright…


“The afternoon is bright,
with spring in the air,
a mild March afternoon,
with the breath of April stirring,
I am alone in the quiet patio
looking for some old untried illusion –
some shadow on the whiteness of the wall
some memory asleep
on the stone rim of the fountain,
perhaps in the air
the light swish of some trailing gown.”

–  Antonio Machado
Selected Poems#3, Translated by Alan S. Trueblood

Image by Chance Agrella on

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