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
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
- 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
- information about the
scope of the instructions--what they cover
- details about the
organization of the instructions and how to use the instructions
- Description of
the equipment (if the instructions are for running a piece of
- Background information or any
necessary theory of operation
- List of
materials or equipment necessary to follow the
(step-by-step details--the heart of your instructions)
- Guide to
troubleshooting (potential problems and their solutions)
Things to keep in mind when writing
- 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.
1.1 First Sub-step
1.2.2 Second sub-sub-step
2. Second Major 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
- 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
- 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