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?
To get expert feedback on your business writing, enroll in the online class Writing Tune-Up for Peak Performance on June 14 and 16. It begins at 12 noon UTC (GMT) / 8 a.m. EDT.