Generally speaking, we don’t watch much TV in our house. That’s largely because I never know what’s on, and scrolling through hundreds of channels only confirms my hunch about how little of it is worth watching. So I tend to default toward a few channels that I’ve found to be reliably entertaining. And one of those is the Food Network.
Don’t get me wrong. I still find a lot of what’s aired there to be incredibly inane, and frankly, I’d live happily ever after if I never had to see (and hear) Guy Fieri smacking his lips over some greasy treat.
But watching chefs? That’s a different matter. And it’s not just watching them cook that fascinates me. It’s watching them plate what they’ve prepared. Have you seen this? A spoon full of rich colorful sauce gets swiped across a plate, like an elegant — and edible — brushstroke. Exotic and wildly colored leafy greens are arranged by hand into an inviting bed, and delicately sliced cuts of meat — roasted just so — are fanned across it. And finally, a sprig or a sprinkle or a sprout dropped casually, but somehow thoughtfully, crowns the entire creation.
This art came to mind the other day as I edited copy that came my way from another office on campus. The letter was simple enough and, frankly, we could have sent it as it was. All the ingredients were there — the nouns, the verbs, the adjectives, the proper marks of punctuation. But they were simply slapped down on the plate. Edible? Sure. Edifying? Hardly.
Of course, there are plenty of times when slapping something on a plate — or dumping words in a sentence — is good enough. Maybe it’s an internal memo, or an email to a colleague, or any occasion when the need to transmit information in a quick and concise way trumps whatever else you may have in mind. But if your writing is intended for an external audience or if you need to move someone to action or evoke an emotional response, think twice about how you “plate” your sentences.
Don’t settle for the first expression of your thoughts that comes to mind. Instead, choose your words carefully. Find the noun that has the exact meaning you want. Search for a verb that conveys action and vigor.
Focus on actors and actions in every sentence. WHO is doing WHAT?
Use adjectives like a master chef uses the final garnish — sparingly and gracefully.
Then, when you’re done, take a moment to congratulate yourself and flip on the television for some entertainment. Try the Food Network. It works for me.