Writing a great set of instructions requires clear thinking and (usually) numerous revisions
One of the most important French cookbooks ever written, “Le Guide Culinaire,” barely resembles today’s recipe collections. The author, chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, expects the reader is an expert in the kitchen who can skim a phrase like “add some curry” and know how much of the spice mix to sprinkle in and when.
Online, a cook, knitter or woodworker has thousands of years of knowledge at his or her fingertips. Still, most expect recipes, how-tos and instructions to be entertaining, informative and clear. Anyone who’s ever played a game of telephone knows that’s more difficult than it seems.
Depending on the context, you may want to begin by giving the reader some information regarding the project, how-to or recipe. For example, what time of year does canning strawberries make the most sense and why? Or maybe you figured out a distinctive way to upcycle a piece of furniture using a paint-splattered sponge and now you want to share that invention. Of course if there are several ways to approach a project, explaining the options upfront often makes sense.
Here are some quick tips to get you started writing a great how-to.
Focus your topic. That may seem obvious, but most how-tos are typically between 500 and 1,500 words, and you want to be helpful without overwhelming the reader. Some instructions are more or less words, but try to be mindful not to accomplish too much in a single how-to.
Write a draft
. Be sure to list the required ingredients or materials and equipment and tools. It never hurts to refer to the work of a professional writer
to check on formatting, but be sure not copy (plagiarism is a no-no, even in the how-to world).
Divide the process into easy to execute steps. Keep language use in mind. While specific terminology may be required in some cases, stay away from jargon that alienates and confuses readers.
Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Think about the questions a novice is going to have when he or she reads your instructions or how-to. Will the reader know which food processor blade or drill bit to use? Such details may seem obvious to the expert writing the piece, but can be big stumbling points for a newcomer.
Rewrite the article, adding details and personality. In addition to giving clear instructions, you may want to insert phrases like “be careful” to express to the reader that the project may require practice the first time. Including encouragement at the end of the piece will help the instructions seem more like advice and less like a dry tutorial.
Add specifics. After you’ve written the how-to, it may help for you to do the project again and read along, step-by-step. That side by side comparison can help uncover details that should be included.
Re-read and revise. Most pieces of writing can be improved with an edit. One of the wonderful aspects about publishing online is that you can tweak your prose even after it’s published. You may find your readers asking questions that need to be answered. Some may also offer tips for improving the project.
The more you how-tos you write, the easier the process will likely become.