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    A 1-2-3 for Writing Instructions

    Monday, April 27, 2015
    Confused drawer?

    I recently became a first-time homeowner, which has been quite the learning experience. Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that Do-It-Yourself projects are not as simple as they look on HGTV.

    My lack of DIY acumen has resulted in an unhealthy amount of time browsing instructional Web sites, manuals, and videos. Along the way, I’ve encountered a surprising number of poorly written instructional materials. Common problems include unclear commands, undefined technical terms, missing steps, and mislabeled diagrams.

    These problems are particularly unfortunate for us novice DIYers, who rely on instructions and best-practice models to get jobs done. Poorly written instructions make it difficult to complete jobs safely and correctly, which compounds frustration.

    But it doesn’t have to be so. Here are some tips for making instructions easy to follow and understand.

    1. Write for beginners. If you’re writing to a general audience, imagine the person with the least knowledge of the subject, and write to that person. Keep in mind that this reader is likely apprehensive to get started. Hold his or her hand through the process using words and visuals.
    2. Outline and test your steps. Create a list of numbered steps, and test them out. Are they in the correct order?  Are additional actions needed to complete the task?  Remember, you are walking your readers through each step. Don’t assume they will take an action that is not explicitly stated.
    3. Write each step as a command. Command sentences get right to the point, providing readers with a clear directive of what to do next. These sentences use active verbs and an implied subject (you). So instead of saying “The seat should be attached to the chair back with four long bolts,” say “Attach the seat to the chair back using four long bolts.”
    4. Use simple language, and define technical terms. I recently worked my way through a set of instructions that included a step to “Inset the CHAMFERRED END of side stretchers into the holes of the chair’s back legs.” Besides the questionable command (should “inset” be “insert”?), what really bothered me was the all-caps treatment of the (misspelled) word chamfered. It’s not a term I was familiar with, but the all-caps treatment indicated that it was important. The instructions neither defined the word nor showed an illustration of its meaning.
      The lesson for instructional writers is this:  Even if you are fluent in the language of the task at hand, the language may be foreign to your readers. Avoid technical words and insider language. And when a technical term is necessary, define it through words or visuals. Also, take the time to proofread and spellcheck your work.
    5. Use pictures, illustrations, and labels wisely. Visual elements, when used correctly, are hugely beneficial. Make sure your visual elements are big enough to see and detailed enough to understand. This includes the list of materials needed to complete the task. Labels and directional graphics such as arrows are a few ways to improve the readability of visual elements.
    6. Observe someone using your instructions. Nothing serves like a real-life test. So ask a friend or colleague (someone unfamiliar with the subject) to put your instructions into practice while you watch—without intervening. Take notes about any points of hesitation or confusion, and revise your instructions for better clarity.

    In conclusion, remember that people turn to instructions when they don’t know how to do something. Your job is to provide the help they need, in the clearest, simplest terms. 

    —Tim Kemper