Here’s how to write instructions that your readers will actually be able to use, regardless of whether it’s how to get to your house to how to disarm a nuclear bomb.
The instructions in the picture have got to be intimidating: It’s a solid wall of text where, presumably, you either get everything completely right or everything will go completely wrong. In our world, instructions are unavoidable: We have to assemble flat-packed furniture, we have to tell people how to get to our house, and somewhere, someone is probably dismantling a nuclear bomb. We can do better than what you see in the picture.
Here are the instructions on how to write useful instructions
- If you’re writing instructions, begin (as my previous sentence does) by telling the reader what the instructions are for. That can be as simple as a title at the top of the page (“How to get to my place”). If there are a lot of similar situations and you need to make it clear which one your instructions cover, then you may need a whole paragraph to introduce your instructions (“In the event that…”).
- Be specific. Your instructions should cover as few situations as possible — everyone is better off if you write a different set of instructions for each situation. You can use the typical hotel web site as a guide, here: If you look for the directions on how to get to the hotel, you’ll find that they have several different sets including “If you’re driving in from the north,” “If you’re driving in from the east,” and “If you’re coming from the airport.”
- Include examples wherever you can, as I did in the previous step. Examples help people understand what your instructions mean. For example, in instructions on how to get to your place you can draw a little map or give the distance between turns.
- In most of your instructions, first tell people what (or why) they’re doing it and then tell them how to do it. Most of the time, most of your readers won’t follow your instructions exactly. Readers will, instead, modify your instructions to meet their needs (this is true, even the directions to get to your house: people will need to stop and get gas on the way or have to drop off the kids). A bad instruction looks like this:
A good instruction looks like this:
You need to get on the Gardiner Eastbound so turn left off of Bay street.
- For virtually every step, provide the reader with some feedback to let them know if they’re doing it right (or wrong). Something like, “If you see the red church then you turned at the right place” reassures your readers that they’re on the right track. You can also point out if they’ve done something wrong.
- Which leads to this: Don’t write your instructions as if people never made mistakes. I can’t think of any set of instructions that I’ve ever followed flawlessly. Instead, include recovery steps that identify a common problem and tell people how to fix it. A recovery step begins by identifying the problem (“If you’re on Wilkinson street, you’ve turned one street too early”) and then explain how to get out of it (“Just turn right at the first stop sign and take the next left.”)
- Pick the appropriate level of detail. If you’re helping your readers to understand how things work and your readers are comfortable with experimenting then you don’t have to provide a lot of detail — people will make mistakes but will also recognize that’s part of the process of learning. If you’re interested in getting exactly one result (ensuring compliance) and your audience wants guaranteed success then supply more detail. In Learning Tree’s technical writing course we discuss several formats for writing tutorials to handle different audiences, including the Minimal format (which encourages exploration) and the PlayScript format (which ensures uniform results).
Always finish your instructions with a note that reminds readers about what they’ve accomplished (“And you’re at our place!”) — this also signals to your readers that there aren’t any more steps on the other side of the page. Here’s the one for these instructions:
Just follow these steps and you’ll write instructions that people will actually be able to use.