How to Write Instructions that Work

Remember the last time you started to install, or assemble, or repair something, following the appropriate set of manufacturer’s instructions – only to find that, while they included steps 2, 5, 6-8, 10, and 12 – they had forgotten to include steps 1, 3-4, 9, and 11?

How did you feel about the person who wrote those instructions and what about the company the instructions came from?

The instructions you and I write on the job are usually somewhat simpler, and certainly different from the late Christmas Eve “special gift” assembly guidelines described above. But the writing process for creating a clear, effective instruction that allows your reader to get the job done is very similar.

To begin with, you must understand the process thoroughly yourself. If you do not, what do you have to do, or to learn, to be able to instruct your reader? Do it. Learn it. Simply watching someone else do it – even if you take careful notes – can create major problems for the writer, and potentially, foggy instruction for the reader.

Once you can work the process successfully every time yourself, you are ready to think about your reader. What should he or she be able to accomplish as a result of following your instructions? How much does he or she already know? Be careful here. Frustrations for the reader trying to follow our instructions frequently result because we assume that every reader will understand the vocabulary, and that the possibly missing steps are so obvious that we don’t need to include them.

Err on the side of including those “obvious” steps. Include a glossary of terms if there is any question that your reader could be unfamiliar with any of them. Show, and label every piece, every part you will be talking about. Show its location, as well as a close-up of the piece itself.

If you are writing a technical instruction, or technical manual, your company or client will probably ask you to use their format. If you are writing a simple instruction, perhaps to your co-workers, or for a largely non-technical audience, here is a useful writing structure.

Introduction:

  1. Do a “set up” paragraph. Tell the reader what this instruction will teach him or her to do, and why the reader needs to know how to do it. What is the ultimate outcome? This sort of strong, short explanation will work in most cases.
  1. List any parts, tools, software, or equipment that will be needed to accomplish the task.
  1. When appropriate, include necessary safety instructions.

Body:

  1. It’s probably easiest, both for the writer and for the reader, to use a list format to describe step-by-step, in detail, what the reader needs to do, how to do it, and the order he or she needs to do it in. Use pictures if, and where needed.

End:

  1. End on a positive, encouraging note! Assure your reader that by following these steps, he or she can easily, comfortably, and safely accomplish….

Now that you have completed your draft, review it for completeness, conciseness, and clarity. Is it absolutely correct? Have you used precise terminology? And finally, check for correct grammar, usage, and spelling – especially of those technical terms.

Next step: Do it yourself. Test it. Follow your written instructions exactly – as though you know nothing about it. Does it work?

Here’s an exercise we like to use in class that will be helpful. Ask someone who knows little or nothing about the process your instructions cover, to read and follow those instructions. Make any necessary adjustments, and you’re ready to go!

 

 

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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