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How Bad Writing Wrecked a Burrito

I bought an “all natural” frozen burrito made with an organic tortilla, black beans, and basmati rice. Eager for lunch, I followed these heating instructions:

Puncture the plastic lid seal covering the tray several times with a fork. Place tray in microwave oven and set on HIGH for approximately 5 minutes or until hot. Carefully remove from oven, peel off plastic film and allow to sit for 1 minute before serving. (Variations do occur in microwave ovens, so consult your owner’s guide for exact settings and time.)

What could go wrong?

The instructions turned the organic tortilla into stiff cardboard.

I know the problem was the instructions and not the burrito because I gave it a second try. I went online and let the food company know about their cardboard meal. In reply, they sent me a coupon for a free frozen entree, and I bought the same burrito. But this time, I set the microwave for 3 minutes, then checked for doneness. Perfection! The burrito tasted as good as it appeared on the box.

Perhaps you think I should have known better the first time. Perhaps my carelessly following rather than interpreting the instructions wrecked the meal? But I can’t accept responsibility when bad writing is to blame.

As the hungry reader, I read “set on HIGH for approximately 5 minutes” and did it. I did not read the information about variations in microwave ovens, which came last–in parentheses.

Good instructions would have told me what I needed to know, in the order I needed to know it.

Think about how you would rewrite the instructions before reading my revision below.

Puncture the plastic seal several times with a fork. Place tray in microwave oven and set on HIGH for 3 minutes. Carefully remove from oven, peel back plastic film, and check for doneness. Microwave another 1-2 minutes if needed. Allow to sit for 1 minute before serving.


Your business writing assignments may not include heating instructions. But you do write instructions of one kind or another. Provide essential information first. Recognize that fast-moving readers may not see information at the end of the instructions. Know that content within parentheses often gets overlooked.

This approach is not dumbing down–it’s writing smart.

Do you agree?


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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.

12 comments on “How Bad Writing Wrecked a Burrito”

  • Lynn,
    The only thing that I would add to your revision, for the US market, is: “Allow to sit for 1 minute before serving as contents may burn you!!” Or something similar.

    The company gets my respect for sending you an incentive to give them another shot.


  • As a trainer who spends the day writing job aids and instructions on how to perform complex tasks, ALWAYS TEST WHAT YOU WRITE!

  • Hi Kevin,

    That’s a helpful addition. I think one exclamation point is sufficient.

    I chuckled at your phrase “for the US market.” You must perceive us as needing a little extra help. If my situation is an example, we do!


  • Lynn,
    The exclamation points were in jest. A period would be more appropriate.

    I would be surprised if there wasn’t some indication on the packaging of potential physical harm.

    Thanks for bringing one of my favorite topics, food, into these discussions. Consumer packaging, especially in the food and beverage market, can be a great source of entertainment.


  • Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for elaborating. I knew you were kidding, but I have international readers who might wonder whether double exclamation points were standard in North America.

    I checked the frozen food package (still in my office recycling). No additional burn warnings. But let’s remember that the instructions were lacking.


  • Dear Lynn,

    Forgive me, but I must admit I couldn’t help but smile at your wrecked burrito 🙂 haste is a poor advisor!

    I’ve noticed that generally organic products labels seem to be less precise. Maybe it’s because they’ve been on the market for a shorter amount of time and lack the experience?


  • I did not have any information about variations in microwave oven but fortunately i came across your article and read about it. Thanks for sharing.

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