Does this Sentence Need Salt?


I've been making a lot of meals with eggplant lately—probably too many. That's right: I started a few plants from seed back in the spring, and in fears they might not all make it to maturity, I planted all of them. And then they all made it. I also worried they wouldn't flourish, so I amended the soil like nobody's business. They all flourished.

Don't get me wrong; I'm a pretty big baba ghanoush fan. And yet I'm finding it can't be a daily thing. So my (dozens of) eggplants have graced plenty a stir fry or roasted veggie mix. My favorite way to use it so far? Eggplant "steaks." They're "chicken-fried"—egged, breaded, deep-fried. Yummy. And they prompt me to make sauces to go with.

But this isn't a newsletter about cooking—or about gardening. And yet, my eggplant bounty has me thinking about words and phrases. Just as eggplant offers the foundation of (probably too many, let's be honest) lunches and dinners, words and phrases provide the foundation of communication. But, like with eggplant, it's how we use them that matters. And it's all about our goal—what we're trying to say or accomplish with our writing.

Just as we cook with a goal in mind, we should write with a goal in mind. We can then use word choice, word order, punctuation, and flow to ensure we meet those goals. The good news? We're used to doing this. We already have the instinct from activities like cooking. We already know that to meet a goal, you add a little more of this, a little less of that. We also know we should alter the way we cook depending on who will be eating it—just as we alter our writing depending on who will be reading it.

Let's look at this in action. We'll take some basic sentences, think about a couple potential goals and readers, and look at how we would or wouldn't want to "spice things up" with various writing options.

Original: Employers can use exit interviews as a means to gather informative data about the way their employees respond to their culture and systems.

Goal #1: I'm writing to HR leaders who are considering adding exit interviews to their internal processes or building on their exit interview process further.

Revision #1: Learn about your employees and reflect on your culture by creating a well-rounded exit interview process.

Goal #2: I'm writing to employees who want to know how their organization strives to learn about and support them as well as possible.

Revision #2: Our exit interview process helps us reflect on our culture and ensure we're meeting the needs of our team members.

The first revision meets its goal by flavoring the sentence with introspective words like learn and reflect; it also encourages HR leaders to try the process by referring to it as well-rounded—indicating just how much leaders will learn. The second revision seeks to connect with employees who want to know what their organization's doing to learn about and support them; words like team, helps, and meeting the needs convey some of this.

Now let's look at an example that's all about tone and mood. Imagine you're encouraging employees to participate in a voluntary survey about engagement and wellness. Which of the following revisions would make you most likely to participate, if you were the reader? I'll highlight some of the words that might influence your decision.

Original: Participate in this year's employee survey to provide data.

Revisions: Help us learn about you by completing this year's survey.

We want to know more about you! Participate in our annual survey.

Join your colleagues and participate in this year's wellness survey.

Help us support you! Participate in our wellness survey.

We invite your feedback on this year's wellness survey.

We request your feedback on this year's wellness survey.

We welcome your feedback on this year's wellness survey.

Help us get to know you! Send in your responses this week.

In many of the revisions above, verbs (like help, learn, participate, join, invite) function like ingredients: we can choose the verb that meets our writing goal. We also see punctuation (in this case, mainly exclamation marks) act like salt or pepper. Just as there's no "right" way to cook, there's no "right" way to write. Instead, there's a "right" way to cook for the situation or for the eater—and a "right" way to write for the situation or for the reader.

Roasted eggplant needs garlic to become baba ghanoush, and sentences need word choice, word order, and punctuation to meet the writing goal as well. With cooking, we often know the goal: maybe we make an extra spicy batch for some eaters but scale it back for others. Similarly, we can add or subtract words, bullets and other formatting choices, punctuation, formal or informal phrases, and the other ingredients of writing to meet our goals as writers. As always, it comes down to purpose and intention.

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