Trying to say what we mean can be a challenge, but one starting point is considering individual words. Well, okay—maybe individual phrases. I’ve recently read and (worse) contributed to a string of emails at a large not-for-profit organization located in Washington, DC, where I’ve freelanced for many years. As of January 1, 2017, they wanted all their consultants, vendors, and contractors to switch to a new billing system.
Any of you who have made such a change in your own organization know it can sometimes take several tries to get people to begin following a new policy, even a noncontroversial policy like this one that will help vendors and consultants get paid. In this case, emails flew back and forth with questions and responses that should have been taken care of before the new instructions were launched.
This particular set of instructions revolved around filling out forms. Writing these instructions should have been a pretty straightforward job, but the authors didn’t check to see if their terms matched what their readers already knew.
For example, consultants (like me) were told to use a “purchase confirmation number.” No mention was made of where to find this number—did it originate with me? With the organization? It turned out that the purchase confirmation number was same as the contract number on my annual consultant agreement. But I had no way of knowing that.
Similarly, the instructions for submitting the invoice asked people to include a department number, and included the information that the department number was located on page two of the contract. This is exactly the sort of information it’s good to include in instructions. But in this case, the location given was incorrect: the department number was available, but in a different place.
Even the terms on the spreadsheet tabs varied. They were labeled like this:
vendor information form
consultant billing instructions
I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering if vendor, consultant, and contractor all meant the same thing, but it would have been helpful to use a single term.
My very brief moral: Make sure what you’ve written makes sense! Several revisions and getting comments from Beta (test) readers will save later headaches.
I’ve made a few basic suggestions for writing instructions here.