The Missing Ingredient in Your Writing Recipe

Yesterday I made granadinas, a Spanish almond cookie I have baked for years. Because of the health risks of Crisco, which I have always used for the cookies, I tried lard for the first time. The cookies failed.

My granadinas simply were not as tasty as the dozens of times I have made them in the past. An important ingredient seemed to be missing. When I left home and returned to my kitchen later, I realized that even the lovely aroma of the cookies was missing. That is when I realized the problem was more than the use of lard.

I had forgotten to add the cinnamon.

That quarter teaspoon of cinnamon made all the difference. The lack of it led to cookies that were merely crisp and serviceable, not wonderfully tasty–despite the ground almonds, flour, eggs, sugar, and a dash of salt.

Business writing is always on my mind, and the missing cinnamon soon reminded me of the missing ingredients in writing. Even when your messages are concise, clear, and seemingly complete, something may be missing. It might be something pleasing, like cinnamon.

Could it be a greeting? According to my survey of 686 adults working in the U.S., 45 percent of people prefer that emails to them include a greeting and their name (49 percent don't care).

Could it be the word please in a written request? The survey showed that 70 percent of people prefer please or similar polite language in the requests they receive. An additional 10 percent feel disappointed, irritated, or angry if such language is missing.

Before you send an email, text, or another message, why not take a moment to consider the ingredients. Perhaps some relationship-building language or positive words (pleased, happy to, look forward) sprinkled in would take your message from bland to delightful–just like the cinnamon in my recipe for granadinas.

Note: My recipe is from Penelope Casas' Foods and Wines of Spain. The survey data is from my new book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time.

Which ingredients are missing from the messages you read?

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Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact. A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors. A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media. Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Lynn,
    You are absolutely right – just the word ‘please’ adds a different ‘feel’ and ‘zing’ to the request. I would hurriedly rush to make that call should someone text me with a ‘Please call me’ and hesitate slightly with this: ‘Call me’, though the sender may do it unintentionally.
    The correct choice of words does matter!

  2. I worked for the Corporate Secretary of a Fortune 500 company. When he wanted something, he always began with “I need your assistance, please”. That meant all the difference in the world. I have no doubt that his emails began the same way. I’ve been doing the same for over 20 years.

  3. Talk about blog posts coming along just when you need them!

    I just received an email in which I was told to coordinate a shipment to a new customer. I don’t have any background on this or any of the contact information for the customer. The email came from an individual who does have all the background and regularly communicates with this customer.

    My knee-jerk reaction was to respond with something along the lines of, “I haven’t been a part of this situation at all and don’t know anything about what is going on or who to contact.”

    Instead, I thought of this blog post and wrote back, “I would be happy to coordinate the shipment. Would you be able to help me get connected to the right people I will need to work with? I have not worked with anyone from this customer yet.”

    Thanks, Lynn;-)

  4. Good morning, Lynn

    If you find time, would you please address the ‘myself v. me’ mistake. I go crazy when someone writes, “If you have a problem, see myself.” I just read a book on writing and the author continually said ‘myself’ instead of ‘me’ or even ‘I.’ Thanks, Bill


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