Dr. Judith M. Newman


Instructions, in general, are simply steps explaining how to do a particular task. However, instructions shape a reader's attitude toward a process, a product, or the writer of the instructions. Therefore, good instructions are not necessarily easy to write. First, they must be clear and able to be followed. Second, they must be correct. Third, they must contain the appropriate amount of information.

Many people do not like reading, interpreting, and following instructions, yet you may have a very good reason for wanting people to follow your instructions. Therefore, you must persuade the reader to use your instructions. You can do this by creating instructions that have an inviting and clear visual design, precise and pertinent information, and a good balance between reading and doing.

Visual design and page layout are very important. Your instructions must be easy to read, and readers must be able to find their places again if they set the instructions aside to perform a step. It should be obvious where the reader is to begin and what the next step might be, and the connections between steps should be easy to grasp. Therefore, be kind to your readers and use plenty of white space and visual aids. Also, number the steps within your instructions clearly and place illustrations near the text to which they are related.

Precision and correctness are also important. Once instructions are written, they must be tested. Testing is best done by someone who is representative of your intended audience or readers.

Finally, instructions must contain the appropriate amount of information for the reader or audience. You must carefully consider the group for whom you are writing. What do they know? What is their background? How basic must your instructions be? What steps in a process can you safely skip? How much detail should you include? What assumptions can you make? How much background must you give? Sometimes, if you are writing for two very different audiences, you must write both a detailed and an abreviated set of instructions. This is also true if you are writing instructions intended to train a set of readers who, after training, refer to the instructions for reminders of important steps.

Instructions generally contain the following elements

  • Introduction
    • an announcement of the subject or topic
    • a declaration of what can be achieved by following the instructions
    • a description of the intended readers (those for whom are the instructions intended)
    • information about the scope of the instructions--what they cover
    • details about the organization of the instructions and how to use the instructions effectively
  • Description of the equipment (if the instructions are for running a piece of equipment)
  • Background information or any necessary theory of operation
  • List of materials or equipment necessary to follow the instructions
  • Directions (step-by-step details--the heart of your instructions)
  • Guide to troubleshooting (potential problems and their solutions)

Things to keep in mind when writing instructions

  • Present the steps of your directions in a numbered or bulleted list. People are accustomed to reading about one step, performing the step, reading the next step, performing that step, etc. If you present your instructions in a numbered or bulleted list, your readers can read, perform, then find the next step easily.
  • Number or label the sub-steps clearly. Often, a major step is numbered 1, and the sub-steps are numbered 1.1 and 1.2. The sub-sub-steps are numbered 1.1.1 and 1.1.2, etc.


    1. First Major Step

    1.1 First Sub-step

    1.2 Second Sub-step

    1.2.1 First sub-sub-step

    1.2.2 Second sub-sub-step

    2. Second Major Step

    2.1 Sub-step

    2.2 Sub-step

    2.3 Sub-step

    2.3.1 Sub-sub-step

    2.3.2 Sub-sub-step

  • Restrict each step, sub-step, or sub-sub-step to one, individual piece of information. Steps should never, never be multiple bits of information or paragraphs.
  • Make liberal use of headings and subheadings.
  • Use the active voice and imperative mood. Begin each step with a verb.
  • Use illustrations to show where things are, how to perform a step, and what should result.
  • Place warnings where readers will see them--surrounded with plenty of white space--before the step to which they apply. Use the words WARNING or CAUTION and consider using a graphic or symbol with the warning to catch the reader's eye. Warnings are used to signal danger to self or others, potential or real damage to equipment, and destruction of or bad results.
  • Tell your readers what to do in case of a mistake or unexpected result.
  • List alternative steps if readers may take them. Place the alternative steps where readers can find them easily.
  • Provide the appropriate amount of details for your audience or readers.
  • Include a troubleshooting guide at the end of your instructions. The guide will list potential problems and their solutions. Troubleshooting guides often use a table format with the problem in the left column and the solutions to the right