Busyness versus Business and Chemical Engineering Action

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My first blog of 2018 talked about the “speed” of the world and recommended slowing down and reflecting. Well, here’s some free chemical engineering advice as the year draws to a close: It’s important to take the time to review facts and data, analyze decisions, gather inspiration from many sources, and finally proceed with definite actions. Still, you’ll need to be ready to change, as things will come at you at “breakneck speed.”  

In my out-of-the-box way of thinking, I’m going to relate these ideas to the World Cup — Congratulations to France! During the big tournament of the big game in summer 2018, there was a lot of discussion about penalty kicks. 

Bradley Staats discussed them in the Wall Street Journal article “Don’t Simply Dive into Action:  Think.” He looked at various research sources and concluded that “the goalie’s best strategy may be not to move at all.”  At the same time, surveyed goalies have said that they would regret allowing a goal more if they stayed in the center (rather than diving left or right).  This impulse reflects an “action bias.” The idea that doing nothing could be the best strategy for goalies or businesses is seldom discussed.  

Action Bias in Chemical Engineering

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In the world of chemical engineering, when looking at a problem, we are all taught to gather more data, do more testing, investigate more research, get more sources, etc.  And yes, sometimes this is the best strategy when coming across a problem that is new to the plant or to the specific process.  However, there are many different thoughts on this topic from Sherlock Holmes who employs occasional silence and distancing for problem solving to Thomas Watson, longtime CEO of IBM who would tell his salespeople “the trouble with everyone is that we do not think enough…knowledge is the result of thought.”

So, what is the answer?  As we sit at our computers and study the data, we all debate with ourselves whether to take a short walk or brainstorm for 5 minutes.  As the title of the blog states, busyness does not lead to business or to learning.  So, as an engineer, I suggest the brainstorm approach and thinking.  For vendors and sales people too, the tendency is for action.  But, even for sales people, thinking and slowing down to develop the correct approach is critical to success.

My chemical engineering advice is to avoid acting just to show “action.” Instead, take some time to think.  We may have to change Notre Dame Football coach Frank Leahy’s quote to read instead: “when the going gets tough, the tough get thinking.”  Let me know your ideas.

6 Global Trends Driving Filtration and Separation Technology Innovation

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This guest blog by Molly Henry of the American Filtration and Separations Society (AFS), appeared on their site (with my editorial assistance). For those who missed the original, I thought it was information worth sharing again here (in edited form) regarding the global filtration market.

As our population grows and urbanizes, so does our need for clean energy, pure water, increased food supplies, advanced medical care, and improved digital devices and processing power. Filtration and separation suppliers, as an enabling technology to most industries, must continually evolve to increase capacity and improve filtration performance. This blog examines the trends necessitating innovation. 

Population growth will drive demand, which will require increased production and manufacturing efficiency for industrial products, foods and beverages, transportation, and infrastructure. All of which means a greater need for filtration and separation technology.

Rapid urbanization on a global scale requires new and improved infrastructure, including water, power, communications and transportation; all of which require filtration.

Disruptive digital technology changes have dramatically improved computer processing for several decades, and trends call for this to continue. As computer circuits have grown smaller and smaller while increasing in processing power, filtration and separation technologies have also become increasingly more sophisticated.

Natural resource scarcity and climate change will make it increasingly difficult to supply an ever-growing population with clean water. This will drive greater use of desalination technologies. Recycling and reusing of wastewater on a consumer, commercial and industrial scale will become the norm. Filtration and separation technology make all these processes possible.

Transformative advances in healthcare will allow people to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. A part of this process will be advances in diagnostic and drug therapies, which utilize filtration and separation technologies. At the same time, a focus on a cleaner environment and all natural and pure consumables, will see more industries utilizing filtration and separation rather than chemical technologies to make products safe and pure.

The race to zero emissions and zero discharge for industrial manufacturing, public utilities, automotive and aerospace will be a technology challenge on many fronts. Filtration and separation are among the major enabling technologies for this purify, recycle, and reuse process.

Whatever role you play, keeping an eye on these megatrends will serve you and your constituents well in the quest for long-term growth and value creation in the global filtration market. 

 

Become a Filtration Tech Troubleshooting Expert

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Recently I addressed the too-familiar telephone call that the “filtration system is not working.” When the call comes in — and so seldom during regular business hours —  filtration tech experts have to react quickly to solve the problem.

Now, the question is how do you avoid getting these types of calls in the first place?  Well, you can turn off your cell phone, but maybe isn’t the best idea.  Instead, the better approach is proactive troubleshooting. 

Proactive Filtration Tech Troubleshooting Ideas

As you know, I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. The great sleuth talks about checklists and separating the consequential from the inconsequential facts. This systematic approach works perfectly for troubleshooting — take a systematic approach with a comprehensive set of questions and logic charts.  After all, we all know that most problems, maybe 90% or more, that arise with the filtration system have been experienced before.  

A different approach involves “walking around” or random analysis.  Sherlock and Dr. Watson are also very good at this. They see what’s not there to uncover the facts. This observation approach can help with the unique problems. I’ve written before also about the Japanese approach of “Genchi Genbutsu,” which further explains this option.

Becoming an Expert Troubleshooter

Becoming an Expert Troubleshooter, though, requires developing several “soft” skills over and above your technical expertise and great depth of knowledge in many areas. These characteristics include:

  • Critical thinking: Ask probing questions to everyone at the plant from operators, mechanics, to process and R&D engineers to encourage conversations
  • Excellent communication: Listen to the answers and ask the same questions in a different way or use the answers to formulate different questions and keep an open mind.
  • Empathy: Try to understand potential frustrations.
  • Motivational: Praise everyone who provided you with the answers, ideas, etc. to inspire the plant
  • Ability to teach: Look for teaching moments so problem-solving permeates through the organization.

In the future of work, we’re going to be looking more at talents in addition to expertise. Cultivate your troubleshooting chops. Keep walking around and keep learning. In the meantime, let me know your area of expertise; maybe I can use your skills.

My Thoughts on Filtration Separation Trends and Practices

 

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I recently had the opportunity to share my ideas on filtration separation trends and practices with World of Chemicals magazine. My favorite part may have been the headline, “Aging with perfection in filtration technology.” I like to think they were talking about me — ha ha!

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In the meantime, I thought I’d excerpt some of the thoughts I shared in that interview.

Talking about global trends in the filtration separation equipment market, I noted, as the world’s population grows, there is a need for cleaner energy, improved water & food and advanced health care….Advances in healthcare and pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals [are also allowing] people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

This means, “filtration and separation technology suppliers must continually improve their products to meet these needs. The trends in the filtration market space are two-fold: moving towards continuous filtration (which is more efficient) as well as moving towards finer and finer particle size removal.”

I suspect we’ll see high demand for filtration separation products in “pharmaceuticals with smaller batches, cleanability and multipurpose operations.” Also, “for increased food supply, we see growth in the agrochemical market including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.” Plus, “cleaner water is driving the specialty chemicals for resins and catalysts.”

As chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers adapt to more multipurpose facilities, filtration and separation equipment must be cleanable and avoid cross-contamination between products. Batch sizes are also smaller, and we demand for finer filtration and separation to 0.5 microns as well as automatic operation for safety, efficiency etc.

Automation trends & more

Automation technology is one of the most important aspects for customers today. It is critical for filtration and separation products for preventative maintenance, efficient operation, mechanical troubleshooting and process analysis. Applying improved automation technology greatly reduces the energy usage and improves accuracy and precision to the overall process.

Automation also provides for optimum operations, time monitoring systems, report generation and recipe management.

We’re also going to have to incorporate R&D to meet market demands. At BHS, we’re working with clients to combine technologies for full turnkey responsibility to minimize lifecycle costs and reduce operating costs. So, overall, we are focused on innovation, automation, continuous processing, cleanability and overall reliability to 99 percent uptime. We strive to provide complete process solutions with spare parts, service and continually to improve the client’s operation.

This requires testing — of course. “Testing provides the collaboration with the client to provide innovative and cost-effective process solutions.”

At the same time, one big challenge in our market is the need for speed. Speed of innovation is impacting our clients who are developing new processes very quickly using micro-reactors, new chemistry, and new products.

The speed at which the filtration and separation suppliers must operate to meet the clients is even faster. Successful companies must fulfill this “speed” objective without sacrificing any core values of safety, efficiency, quality, and service.

Troubleshooting When the Filtration System is Not Working

 

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These are five dreaded words that no engineer wants to hear on a Saturday night or Sunday morning: “The filtration system is not working.” Of course, we never seem to get this call at 10 in the morning on a work day!

No matter the time of day, let’s not panic, take a deep breath and begin the analysis.  

There are normally three main areas that must be examined when you learn the filtration system is not working:

  1. The filter itself for mechanical reasons
  2. The equipment around the filter is not working
  3. The filter operational procedures are not correct.  

To fully understand the problem, it’s necessary to separate the symptoms from the causes. So, let’s examine each of these groups in more detail.

Troubleshooting Filter Problems

The first thing that should be checked is the filter itself. There could be a failure of the equipment mechanics such an internal components, seals, etc. Many of these issues will be described normally in the preventative maintenance section of the filter’s O & M manual. 

Second, keeping in mind, the filtration system is part of the entire process it’s important to examine the upstream and downstream equipment. For example, you might check:

  • Are the reactors performing correctly in terms of agitation, temperature control, etc. in order to produce the specified crystals?  
  • Are the precoat and body feed systems in tune for mixing, feeding, flow rates, solids loading, etc.?  
  • Are the valves and instruments operating correctly and reading the correct variables (calibrations), etc.?  

Next, take a look at the pumps that feed the slurry and washing liquids as well as the compressors the feed the gas streams for drying and cake discharge.  The pumps must produce the required pressure, flow rates, etc.  The compressors must also produce a certain gas flow at a specific pressure for a certain amount of time.  Are their interlocks in the control system or a control communication problem that are not being recognized that are causing the filter problem.  Finally, if flocculants and chemicals are being used, have these changed?  

Process Engineering Problems? 

The last place to look is the process or operational procedures. These could be responsible for the filtration problems.  For example, the particle size distribution may have changed, the amount of solids in the slurry may have changed, the cake compressibility may have changed, etc.  In terms of the operation, has the filtration pressure changed, timers changes, speed changed, etc.?  Finally, determine whether or not a process parameter has changed.  

Trouble shooting is not easy, but solving the problem brings a great sense of satisfaction. 

Let me know some of your troubleshooting horror stories! I’d love to share some in a future blog. Together, we can make it easier to handle the situation next time we hear those five dreaded words.  

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Filtration of Liquefied Gases & Caesar’s Last Breath

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On the heels of my blog about “The Business of Breathing,” it’s time to talk about gas. I recently finished reading the Sam Kean book “Caesar’s Last Breath.”  For those of you who have not read Kean, his specialty is writing science books in an exciting and entertaining fashion.  His three other books focus on the elements in the periodic table, genetics, and the brain.  Meanwhile, Caesar’s Last Breath looks at gases and both how the atmosphere has shaped human beings and how human beings have shaped the atmosphere.

The word “gas” actually comes from the Greek word “Khaos” for chaos or empty space between the Greek gods and the earth. To the Greeks, gases were the least understood component and the most “wildest” of spirits that no one could tame.

liquified gases

Today we know gases can become liquids, solids or stay as gases.  The book is a survey of the history of the earth explored through the air that we breathe and the scientists that made major discoveries of gaseous properties.

Believe it or not, there are good guys and bad guys and conflicts in the book.  Kean covers the earth’s early days, atomic tests at Bikini Atoll, details of UFO sightings in Roswell, New Mexico, and the truth behind the US Air Force tests.  There is a whole chapter on nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as well as the Manhattan Project and the development of ammonia gas and fertilizers.  Of course, there is a discussion of ice seeding for rain, which I am am keenly interested in as well (remember my blog on the Cat’s Cradle and the Vonnegut family?).  Finally, Caesar’s Last Breath concludes with alien life, new planets, greenhouse gases and other crazy ideas for other civilizations. All of these chapters are a lot of fun to read.

Relating my Reading to Filtration Tech

Yet, while all of this is very interesting, especially Kean’s scientific data, the question remains for my blog readers: how does BHS handle liquified gases?  Knowing that gases, under pressure, act as a liquid The BHS Rotary Pressure Filter can conduct filtration, washing, and drying of slurries continuously under pressure to keep the gas as a liquid. We also have installed units for Dimethyl Ether (DME) with specialty containment; contact me  for further information or discuss your critical filtration applications.

In the meantime, what have you been reading lately that you might suggest I pick up? I’m always on the lookout for new must-reads with a scientific bent. Or anything you can share that offers a new perspective on liquified gases.

4 Key Differences between Filtration and Centrifugation

I’m always looking to collaborate and explore ideas with others in our filtration technology business. Happily, director of Oriental Manufacturers Jigar Patel, has offered this guest blog discussing differences between filtration and liquid solid centrifugation. I hope you enjoy Patel’s perspective:

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Filtration and centrifugation are two distinct separation techniques used for isolating the required components from the mixture. The major difference between the techniques is the nature of the force employed and the separation method used. While filtration uses a sieve or filter media to strain undesired constituents, centrifugation leverages the power of the centrifugal force for the separation.

What is Filtration?

Filtration is a physical separation technique, by pressure, vacuum or gravity, used for segregating one or more components from a mixture for different applications. Depending on the application, the process may employ one or multiple metal perforated layers or filter mesh for solid-liquid separation. 

What is Centrifugation? 

Centrifugation is a process that employs a centrifugal force to separate the elements of the liquid slurry.  The remaining liquid (supernatant) is then transferred from the centrifuge tube or removed without disturbing the precipitate. The precipitating particles left behind depend on the speed of the machine, the shape and size of the particles and their volume, viscosity, and density.

4 Major Differences between Filtration and Centrifugation

#1 Nature of Operation 

  • Filtration 

Large particles in a mixture are unable to pass through the perforated layers of the filter. Yet fluids and small particles easily pass through the filter mesh under the pressure, vacuum, or gravitational force. 

  • Liquid Solid Centrifugation 

The centrifugal machine forces the heavier solids to the bottom creating a firm cake. The lighter mixture that stays above the cake is then decanted. 

#2 Separation Techniques

  • Filtration 

Filtration uses different techniques depending on the expected outcome which can be classified as pressure, vacuum, or gravitational.

  • Centrifugation 

Centrifugation techniques can be classified as micro-centrifuges, high-speed centrifuges and ultra-centrifugations. Microcentrifuge is typically used for research studies that require the processing of biological molecules in very small volumes. High-speed centrifugal machines are designed to handle bigger batches and are mainly used for processing industrial mixtures on a large scale. The ultra-centrifugation technique is used to study the properties of biological particles.

#3 Function 

  • Filtration 

The main function of filtration is getting the desired output by eliminating impurities from any given liquid or isolating solids from a mixture. 

  • Centrifugation 

The main purpose of centrifugation is fast, efficient separation of solids from a liquid solution or slurry.

#4 Efficiency 

  • Filtration 

Simple filtration techniques take time separating the desired materials, which makes the separation method less efficient. 

  • Centrifugation 

Centrifugation techniques employ machines that run with the aid of power, so the separation method is faster and more efficient. 

Both filtration and centrifugation are solid-liquid separation techniques that use different equipment and have different applications.

My two cents: Deciding which one is best suited to your process will take work. No matter the process in question, engineers are well served by taking the time to gather the information, make their own comparisons, and then develop a process solution.

Thanks to Jigar Patel. The director of Oriental Manufacturers believes in the power of good functional designs and their ability to boost productivity and drive growth. Fueled by his passion for innovation and all things EPC, Jigar writes on topics related to process plant equipments, process machinery production, turnkey solutions, best industry practices, liquid solid centrifugation, and his personal insights!‌

Keep the sharing going — let me know what you want to write about in this spot next!

What Are Process Engineering Responsibilities in Technical Sales

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With graduation season coming there will be many chemical engineers on the market looking for their first jobs.  There are many opportunities with operating companies, engineering companies, startups, venture capitalists (yes, engineers in the financial industry), and consulting firms. Nevertheless, my first choice is sales, so let’s flesh out a technical sales description.

Why technical sales? It’s an interesting field for process engineers for several reasons as you get the opportunity to:

  • Combine technical expertise with people skills  and business knowledge to help customers solve problems
  • Define customer’s technical requirements
  • Explain, test, and demonstrate the company’s products to meet the requirements and solve the customer’s problems
  • Employ a flexible approach to technical/commercial situations
  • Interact with a variety of people and positions

The best process engineers for technical sales possess a desire to get involved in the business aspects of many different industries/application and are willing to cultivate long-term selling relationships with varied types of people.

But Will I Still be a Process Engineer?

In school you learned all of the technical skills. Now, in technical sales, you use all of your process engineering skills. How so?

  • Selling requires logical analysis and documentation to the client to make them feel comfortable with the product
  • Performing calculations allows you to be successful in risk taking and feel confident in your decisions
  • Continuing to trouble shoot the process and solve difficult problems even after you have sold the equipment

Graduating with the technical skills under control, there are certain attributes that can help you transition to a technical sales role as a process engineer. Those looking to hire you for technical sales will want to see:

  • Are you a good listener?
  • Are you motivated?
  • Do you have thick-skin so that if the client is not satisfied you can accept criticisms?
  • Can you be part of a team?
  • Are you a good writer?
  • Do you like to be in front of people making presentations?
  • Are you both curious and creative?

My Path to Technical Sales

I embarked on this career path with degrees in chemistry and environmental science and technology.  I joined the US Environmental Protection  Agency in 1976 when we were a young agency.  I did air sampling (clean shaven and no beard) and rule development and was able to learn about many industries and applications.  After getting by MBA at night (over four long years), I joined Pall Corporation in technical marketing.  This role was fun, creative but now here I am working with BHS-Sonthofen. Some 35 years later, technical sales and marketing are ingrained in my psyche.

Know that you have my thoughts on shaping a technical sales description, let me know if I can help you with your career decisions and training.  Good hunting.

Selecting the Right Types of Filtration for Solid-Liquid Separation

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Filtration selection, if we think back to Sherlock Holmes, means “not jumping to conclusions.”  There is no “one size fits all” process solution.  Selecting a filtration technology requires a systems approach incorporated with other solids processing such as reactors, dryers, solids handling, etc.  You could gain an objective overview by filling out an application data sheet (like the ones I use for new or existing applications) that can help identify what’s involved in the specific solid-liquid separation.

Ultimately, the process has three components:

  • Material properties, which I’ll describe in more detail below
  • Separation performance objectives including, for example, filtrate quality (conductivity or residual solids) cake dryness, flowability of the cake, crystal breakage /fines generation and conditioning of the cake for further processing
  • Mechanical properties — The specification must be clear in terms of material of construction, temperatures/pressures, FDA validation, cleaning procedures, manufacturing codes, etc.  Each equipment type will have its own mechanical specifications that must be satisfied.

These three considerations are combined and ranked choices are then evaluated for operational, economic, and plant (internal and external) objectives.

Finding the Best Filtration Procedure

Your examination of material properties considers the solids and the liquids.  For solids, the engineer needs to know the total suspended solids (TSS) and solids concentration, particle size distribution (PSD), and particle shape.  The PSD should be based upon particle counts at different sizes rather than by weight or volume.

The particle shapes can vary:  spheres, rounded, angular, flaky, or thinly-flaked are among the examples.  Shape will influence the filtration rates for the process and also impact the PSD due to the nature of particle size measuring equipment.

Knowing this, the solid-liquid filtration system further requires a systems approach to incorporate other solids processing such as reactors, dryers, and solids handling, etc.  The full scope should include the actual upstream and downstream.

Consider this typical example of a chemical process including all of the associated processing steps:

  • Chemical synthesis and Crystallization:
    • Types of catalysts
    • Solvents
    • Continuous or batch
    • Temperature
    • Flashing
    • Inerting
  • Filtration
  • Drying
  • Dissolution
  • Hydrogenation
  • Secondary crystallization
  • Filtration
  • Final drying
  • Solids and slurry handling in all steps

General Guidelines to Selection

So, the question is where to begin to make the preliminary filtration technology choices for solid-liquid separation?  Here are some general guidelines for selecting among types of filtration:

Filter Press Continuous Vacuum and Pressure Nutsche  Filter & Filter-Dryer Clarification
Solid content of the suspension (%) 5 to 30 10 to 40 10 – 40 < 5
Maximum Pressure Difference 100 bar -1 to 6 bar 6 bar 10 bar
Cake Thickness (mm) 5 to 50 5 to 150 5 to 300 20
Average Particle Size 1 to 100 micron 1 to 100 micron 5 to 200 micron 1 to 50 micron
Type of Operation Batch Continuous Batch Batch
Comments Good for slow filtration and can produce dry filter cakes; Excellent cake washing and pre-drying Good when reactor batch times equal to total cycle times Disposable for low flows; candle and plate filters for large flows

Let me know if this is helpful to you.  My idea is to do a series of types of filtration systems for solid-liquid separation for various applications.  What is troubling you?

The Technique of Technical Writing

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I challenge you to think of a job in which communication skills won’t increase your chances of success. Even zoo keepers working with other species benefit from communicating non-verbally with the lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) in their care.

In our engineering/business careers, technical writing skills are an even more important subset of communication, and highly valuable. If you follow this blog regularly, read the BHS newsletter or visit our website, you know already how much I enjoy writing and communicating ideas to the marketplace.

To me, while we may call ourselves engineers and professionals, we are also technical writers. All of us craft e-mails, white papers, reports, proposals, justifications, etc. Thinking about this made me want to share some of my thoughts on clarity of communication (with an appreciative ‘I’m not worthy’ nod to all the editors, some of whom I count as friends, of engineering magazines who have studied technical writing / journalism much more closely than I have).

Consider Your Audience

What language are you using? I do not mean to ask whether you’re utilizing a foreign language. Rather, are you employing the language of your audience? For example, many words are relative and they reflect the experience of the writer. Consider for instance the word “large.” What is a large motor, large pipe diameter, or large filter area? The answer depends upon the marketplace, application, place in the world, company, etc. A large motor for a pharmaceutical engineer is much different than for the engineer working in a refinery.   A large filter area is different in the mining industry compared to a specialty chemical. Or what about the word “high”? Think about all of the ways this one word is used…high cost, high efficiency, high pressure, high temperature….I could go on and on.

Going further, when we look at language, we should also look at our own company’s languages. Every vendor, every client, and every software device has its own acronyms and code words. It is like the United Nations without the use of the headphone translations.

Ultimately, clear and concise writing can prevent a safety accident, make a project proceed better, reduce the need for calls in the middle of the night to the process engineer (or worse to the vendor) and improve overall satisfaction. Take care with your writing.

Principles for Better Writing

How do we get better at writing? Write often. Read a lot (you’re off to a great start subscribing to this blog!). I also try to focus on the following:

  • Accuracy — Don’t get caught up in impressing people will all that you know about a subject. Instead, pay attention to accurately communicating the essential information.
  • Write to the audience — You draft for you. You revise for your audience. Always look at what you have written with fresh eyes to consider what will make sense to the person reading.
  • Conversational — Technical writing doesn’t need to be bogged down with jargon. Everything is more interesting to read when the reader is engaged in the story you are trying to tell.
  • Clear and concise — Don’t try to impress people with multisyllabic words and quotes from great classical minds. Cut the excess in favor of getting right to the point and staying there for only as long as you need — no longer.
  • Simple — There are many complex concepts we address every day in our professional lives. That’s what keeps it interesting in the office, right? Only you needn’t share all of the nuances with your reader. The job of the writer is to process the information and identify the main point and important takeaways. Do the thinking first and then share your simple observations in your writing rather than rambling on at length about all of the options you might have considered.

These are the techniques that I focus on in my writing. I hope that you’ll see my blog follows these principles.

Have you had any specific experiences or funny experiences where “language “has been confusing? Let me know. I’d love to follow this blog up with one sharing amusing stories from our field.