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Tell Me What To Do

Yesterday, while I was chopping vegetables, my 12-year-old came into the kitchen and asked me about taking medicine for her runny nose. She showed me the box of tablets she had gotten from our medicine cabinet, and we looked at the box together.

Reading the directions with her, I said, “Looks like you need to divide, crush, chew, or dissolve the tablet. Which do you prefer?”

As I continued making dinner, she tried to divide the tablet but couldn’t. No, she couldn’t crush it either. She didn’t want to chew it. So she opted for dissolving it. But after 10 minutes, the tablet hadn’t dissolved in her glass of water.

Frustrated, my daughter read the directions again, then said, “MOM-MMMM! It says do not divide, crush, chew or dissolve the tablet!”

We had read the instructions wrong. We had not seen the little words “do not,” which were in the same tiny font as the other instructions. We did see the words divide, crush, chew, and dissolve because they are bigger words.

Not once did the directions tell us what TO DO–only what NOT to do. We would have appreciated the simple “Swallow the tablet whole.”

Moral of the story: When writing instructions, procedures, and directions, tell the reader what to do–not what not to do.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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.