Instructions

Many of your technical writing projects will involve writing instructions and explanations. You might be asked to explain to readers how to repair a lawnmower, assemble a television stand, or operate a fax machine. Although the templates you will use may vary from client to client, most written instructions will contain the following sections:

  • Introduction: Here, you'll give your reader a general overview of what the instructions contain. The actual process being explained should also be mentioned. Finally, if the reader will need prior knowledge of a specific topic to comprehend the instructions, this should be identified.
  • Background (if applicable): Not all instructions will require background information. Include it only if it is essential to the process being discussed. For example, if you're telling readers how to use Photoshop, you might include a general discussion on manipulating images.
  • Warnings (if applicable): If there are any hazards or dangers inherent in the process, they should be identified. Some processes will involve handling poisonous chemicals, for example, while others may involve a risk of electric shock.
  • Equipment and supplies needed: Identify all of the tools the reader will need to accomplish the task, and be specific. Don't merely tell the reader they will need a "screwdriver and screws" - specify the exact size and type.
  • Steps in the process: In this section, the most important, you'll explain how to actually complete the process. Break the procedure down into small steps, and arrange them into a numbered list if they have to be completed in a specific order. Use graphics to illustrate any steps that might be confusing. Finally, you should also provide periodic progress checks for the reader. If you're explaining how to build a dog house, for example, you might tell the reader after step #16 that "at this point, the four walls should be attached to the base." This lets the reader verify whether they're completing the process correctly, and will let them backtrack and correct any mistakes before they get too far into the process.

Quick tip #1: When you're writing instructions, try to use simple and short sentences. Don't use any unnecessary adjectives or complex sentence structures that may confuse the reader.

Quick tip #2: To evaluate the effectiveness of your instructions, give them a test run. See if you can construct that cabinet or hook up that printer using only your instructions. If you find yourself relying on personal knowledge to fill in the blanks or are unable to complete the process, it's necessary to give your instructions a second look. Even better, have a friend or family member who is not a technical expert try to complete the task using your instructions. Their success (or failure) will be a good indication of whether further revisions and work will be needed.

Quick tip #3: Speak to the reader, and avoid the passive voice. Using direct commands is also a good idea. This will make your instructions much easier to understand. For example, "double click the mouse" is much better than "the mouse will be double clicked."


Last Updated: 05/05/2014