Adding “How” to “How-To”

“One Way or Another,” Julia Feldmeier’s article on negotiating that ran in the Washington Post on Sunday (7.29.07) had a sidebar on how to negotiate raises and benefits when you get hired. The article is well-researched and has some tips about negotiating prices at a flea market and a car dealership, but then it falls into a trap I see often in How-To articles. In the section on salary negotiation, Feldmeier gives advice, but doesn’t tell you how to follow up on it.

“Also investigate loopholes. If the company says it doesn’t pay anyone in your position more than $80,000, but you know that they’ve granted sizable signing bonuses, press them on that point.” How would you know they’ve granted sizable signing bonuses? How many companies at which you’ve interviewed was that information available? Is the average interviewee going to have personal knowledge of the information?

In another paragraph, the job applicant is cautioned against being the first to reveal a satisfactory salary. But what about those jobs on Monster and Craig’s List that say, “replies without salary requirement will be discarded without further notification”? No mention on how to handle that. Do you risk not mentioning your salary? Do you inflate your salary?

In the last several months, I’ve seen several articles that are short on the “how” in “how-to.” Just telling the reader that an action is necessary isn’t enough. You have to tell the reader how to take that action, particularly when it comes to research.

Saying “use the internet,” or “Google the company’s website” for information often sends the reader on a senseless churn for facts not available on a company’s website.

Writers have the responsibility to be clear. The least we can do is take our own advice and see what happens. I

ve read several articles recommending websites that no longer work. One was a salary-comparison site, and when I tried to use it, it contained nothing but pop-up ads, other links, and advice to ask your friends in the same field about their salaries, while sharing drinks.

How-to articles are popular, but yours won’t be if the “how” is missing. Give clear tips, include details that create the result in the advice you give, point to working websites, and use verbs that allow the reader to understand how to get the results you advise. Then you have a readable article.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2007 All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Adding “How” to “How-To”

  1. Not to mention the likely outcome of a job candidate “pressing” a prospective employer on any point! Nothing will get you out the door faster than suggesting your employer is (ahem) being economical with the truth. I had to laugh over that bit of how- to advice. When I got my first job, another person was hired on the same day. She chose to spend her first day investigating loopholes — that is, asking everyone what their salaries were. She actually got some people to tell, then marched into the manager’s office and suggested a renegotiation of her salary. He complied with her request, and set her new salary at $0.

  2. Clara–That’s a real slap-on-the-forehead moment, isn’t it? “I don’t want to tell you how to because it would distract from my ‘how-to’ article.” Why write it if it doesn’t give me directions? Oh, I get it, it’s not about the reader, it’s all about the writer.

  3. Quinn, I see this often in “how-to” articles that I read. My conclusion is that the reporters are too lazy to go down the one or several layers needed in order for the advice to be truly useful (as in your example of the signing bonus information). When I asked a journalist about this practice, his (I thought facile) answer was that doing that would have taken him down a side road that wasn’t the main point of his story. Ha!


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