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What Road Signs Can Teach Writers

I have been teaching business writing in a variety of places lately–New York, St. Louis, and today Portland, Oregon. In my drive from Seattle to Portland and back, I realized that road signs offer good lessons to business writers.

Below is what I observed about the road signs on I-5, the main highway between Seattle and Portland. 

All the signs of the same category are identical in form. For example:

  • Signs for rest areas are blue; for state parks, brown; and for roadwork, orange.  
  • The road exit signs have the exit number at the top, followed by the destination. The signs are green with white lettering.
  • When a destination is the next exit, the exit number is not given. The sign simply gives the destination, for example, Ridgefield, with the phrase "Next Exit" underneath it.

Lesson for writers: Keep like things in the same form. For example, render all bullet points in a section as sentences or phrases–not both. Start all action items with a verb. If you capitalize only the first word in one heading, capitalize all similar headings the same way. Rendering the same kinds of information the same way increases your readers' ability to find and use it.

When a list of destinations appears on a sign, the closest destination comes first, as in:
       Castle Rock     7
       Olympia        63
       Seattle        123

Lesson for writers: The information your readers need first should come at the beginning of your communication. For example, at the beginning of your email, tell readers what you want them to do. That way, they will know how to handle the rest of your message. Save less timely or less important information for the end of your message.

Businesses in the same category appear on the same sign, usually with their company logos. For example:

  • One sign lists all the hotels, motels, etc., with the heading Lodging Exit 21.
  • Another sign lists all the places to eat, with the heading Food Exit 21. I always check the food signs for a Starbucks logo because I know I will get a familiar drink there.
  • Gas (petrol) and tourist activities have their own signs too, just like those above.

Lesson for writers: Group similar information together, keeping in mind how your readers will use it. In your meeting notes, group all the action items. When familiar images will help (like the logos), include them. For instance, include photos with people's bios. For a column or feature in your monthly newsletter, include the same kinds of graphics each month.

As you can see, I enjoyed thinking about what road signs can teach writers. What observations would you add?

My final thought: It's good to be home!

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.

15 comments on “What Road Signs Can Teach Writers”

  • Hi Lynn,

    Thank you for your keen observations with regard to signage.

    I have always found it interesting that signs communicate so much information so well, particular on our roads and highways.

    Consistency is one reason road signs work: the text appears in the same place from sign to sign, and we learn that the shapes, colors, and graphics are predictable.

    All of this familiarity is a comfort as we travel by car. A quick glance can tell us, for instance, that food and lodging are ahead. Great joy!

    Did you know that I was a business writer before moving back to Vermont to open my sign shop? I suspected then that some of my attraction to signs were the same things that I valued in good business writing. Thank you for confirming that connection.

  • Hi, Lynn.
    As always, you come at the issue in a fresh and thoughtful way. It’s good to be reminded of the thinking process behind our choices–which we do intuitively when we’ve been in the writing business a long time.

    And your comment at the end reminds me of my mother, who loved to travel AND loved returning home. While the journey out was one she’d enjoy at leisure, she said she often felt like the old horse when his rider turns toward the barn: could never get there fast enough.
    Thank you.

  • Though even road signs can be subject to jargonising and pomposity – in the UK, at least.

    A colleague of mine claims to have once seen a sign announcing “Physical width restrictor reinstated”.

    In other words, “Road narrows”.

  • Hi, Cookie. I enjoyed your reminiscence of your mother. It made think more about my feelings about travel. Of course, I did have to check the spelling of “reminiscence,” which I would have gotten wrong without my dictionary.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • What a great article Lynn. I had never thought about road signs like that before!

    I too am a business writing trainer (in the UK) and often use posters or notices as examples of how to write or (more often) how not to write. You know, the kind of things that people stick on noticeboards in offices, rest rooms and in shops.

    The point is that you have to get a message across quickly in a notice. This means that you have to get to the point straight away. You also have to cut out any information that is not necessary.

    It’s a good lesson in how to write briefly, politely and effectively!

  • This is really interesting, as professional Mind Mapper I use icons and graphics all the time to communicate info quickly, easily and accurately. Road and safety signs are designed to do this and thus I often use them as examples. However in the last few years there has been a move to use digital signs which contain text. These are a) monochrome, b) contain text c) usually no graphic. The info has to be repeated for several miles to ensure that driver can interpret the in communication while traveling at speed. A simple graphic often is more effective.
    Even people who claim they find graphics and drawings difficult to understand have no problem with road signs: why? because they are highly effective communicators.

  • Jane surely its not about writing but about communicating in the best possible format? If the standard fire exit sign stated ‘this is a fire exit do not run but walk to a safe place’ we would find that it look a lot longer to find our way out rather than just to follow the graphic? Its all about appropriate communication. The tabloid and red tops are also very effective headline communicators using a three or four punchy words to get the message across.

  • Hi, Tim. I think concise writing is just as important as using the best possible format, if I may join your conversation with Jane.

    In your example about the fire exit, an effective sign would never have all those words. It would say simply “Exit.” To your point, many exit signs in the US look alike, so people recognize them without even thinking about the word “Exit” itself.

    Thanks for jumping in. I appreciated your comments about digital signs. Such signs seem to require close reading at 50 miles per hour–not an easy task!


  • Hi I have a boss who ends business letters to acquaintances with

    With regard

    (her name)

    Is this correct. My instinct is to say
    With kind regards

    With regards

    Yours sincerely,

    (Her name)
    Can you tell me please which is correct. I hate letters going out with my name as typist if they are wrong….

  • Hi, Sandra. I don’t remember ever seeing “With regard” as a complimentary close. The plural form of the word (“regards”) is standard. However, that doesn’t mean “regard” is wrong–it’s just unusual.

    Why not mention to your boss that the plural form is standard and ask her whether she is intentionally using the singular. Maybe she hasn’t thought about it and would appreciate the question.

    Good luck!


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