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The Secret of Successful Instructions

The secret of successful instructions is to have an inexperienced user try to follow them before they are published. As the user follows each step, the wise writer watches for glitches, places where the instructions confuse or mislead the reader. Then the writer makes repairs and has yet another novice user follow the draft instructions again.

I was a typical, rather novice user for a cookbook, Heavenly Delights, which I had the pleasure of proofreading. The cookbook celebrated the 100th anniversary of Cresskill Congregational Church, in Cresskill, New Jersey. The recipes came mostly from church elders, many of them over 80 years old, some of them already deceased. I had known many of the contributors since my childhood visits to New Jersey.

As I read the cookbook, I came across expressions that perplexed me, things that would slow me down if I were actually following the recipes:

"1 dessert spoon of baking soda"
[Is a dessert spoon the same as a teaspoon?]

"1 can crushed pineapple"
[How big a can?]

"As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pour the frosting down the middle and smooth it to the edges, but don’t scrub."

30-40 shrimp
[Fresh? Peeled? Deveined?]

"Melt piece of butter (size, small egg) with 2 squares of unsweetened chocolate. When melted, add 1 scant cup of milk. Continue cooking in double boiler until like chocolate pudding."
[How much butter equals a small egg? Should I have started in a double boiler? Yes, of course. But how thick is chocolate pudding?]

"Melt 8 oz. bar of Hershey’s chocolate with 1/3 bar of paraffin over hot water."
[Isn’t that melting chocolate with wax?]

Readers of technical instructions have the same kinds of questions:

  • Which part do I click–the picture or the words?
  • Why does nothing happen when I click Go?
  • Right-click or left-click?
  • Double-click or single-click?
  • What do I do if a box is not applicable but it’s a required field?
  • Which web page am I on now?
  • What will happen if I Go Back?

Get a customer, member, client, user, citizen, retiree, buyer, or flyer to follow a draft of your instructions. If your experience is like that of most writers, you won’t believe the places that throw off readers. You will do another draft and test it, then another, and finally your instructions will be ready.

Enjoy the pursuit of clarity!

Syntax Training

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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.

2 comments on “The Secret of Successful Instructions”

  • Fantastic advice. I will try to make sure to do this–although I write so many directions, and those novice users usually need to learn how to do whatever-it-is right away, that the prospect seems overwhelming. Still, I know that the time invested in getting it right will save time later on.


  • Amy, you are right–it is a time-consuming process. If you can’t get novice users to review your instructions quickly, sometimes it helps just to let the instructions rest for a day. When you come back to them, you may find that something you thought was clear was not. I just had that experience when I read through this blog post. Now I want to tweak it to make it completely clear.

    Thanks for commenting!


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