Writing a Successful Instruction

I remember all those Christmas eves, and maybe you do too, spent trying to assemble kids’ toys: “tab A in slot B” – that sort of thing, the evening too soon blending into morning, leaving us feeling incompetent, frustrated, and not anything at all like Merry Old St. Nick!

It was enough to give you mental whiplash!

Perhaps you are not “instruction challenged,” and perhaps we were not, either! I am totally convinced that our instructions included steps two, three, four, six, eight, nine, 11 and 13.

Remember the last time you tried to put something together – maybe to put in a new sink faucet, for example (“They gave me instructions, how hard could it be?”) To install new software? Or to change the cartridge on your printer the first time?

What’s the difference between instruction and obstruction? Why do we feel, and why might our readers feel the same frustration we have known? And how can we make it easier for our readers to succeed with our instructions?

There is the oft-told story of the professor who was teaching his students to write an instruction. The subject: how to shuffle a deck of cards. Not one of his students, we are told, thought to start with either (1) secure a deck of cards, or (2) open the box and remove the cards, preferring to start with “divide the deck of cards into two parts…” And thereby missing steps one and two.

Why? Because the writer assumed that of course the readers would know they had to secure a deck of cards, and that the box the cards were in would need to be opened, and the cards removed before the reader could begin to shuttle. This often happens when the writer knows so very much about his or her topic, forgetting that the reader may not know as much.

And how about instructions for the non-technical reader on a technical subject? We’re not talking about technical instructions or technical writing for technical people – there are specific rules and formats for doing this. What we’re talking about here is how do you instruct someone inexperienced in your discipline, and unfamiliar with your “language,” so they can succeed?

Well, in addition to making sure you have included every step of the process, you must also “translate” the words and phrases for your readers, into words or phrases they will understand.

So where to begin?

  1. First of all, consider what you are writing, and your probable reader. Most of the instructions we will be writing on the job will be simple, uncomplicated guidelines for getting a job done, and frequently will be presented in 1-2-3 list form.
  1. What do you want your readers to be able to do as a result of reading your instructions? What do they already know, and what will be new information to them? Even though they may already know some of the information you are presenting, do not assume that you can leave any information, or any steps out, and still have every reader fully able to accomplish the necessary results.
  1. How will your reader feel about doing what your instructions tell him or her to do? Will there be an element of resistance?

Here are the three sections of a simple instruction:

The Beginning

  1. You will begin with a who-what-when-where-why-how “lead paragraph,” of not more than five lines, providing a broad, but brief overview of the entire process, why it is necessary, and the desired outcome. If you expect any sort of resistance, it’s probably best to begin with the “why.”
  2. If tools, parts, or supplies of any sort will be needed, list them.

The Middle

If you have not already done so in the first section, describe the results to be achieved by the step-by-step instructions to follow. One sentence is usually adequate.

Now list, in 1-2-3 form, in detail, every single step that must be performed, in correct order. It also helps to start every step with an action word.

Tip: For a detailed, or complex instruction, ask a co-worker to help you test the instruction by performing every single step – exactly as you have written it, and nothing more – as you read each step to him or to her. This will help you to pick up anything you may have left out, or anything that may be confusing.

Tip: Again, for a detailed, or complex instruction, you might find it helpful to include some sort of graphic element, such as a labeled diagram, or numbered drawings of each step.

The End

Using a confident and positive tone, describe what the reader has accomplished, and its benefits.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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