Step by step

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Does your heart sink at the thought of reading an instruction manual?

Mine too.

Many flatpack furniture disasters and technology woes could have been avoided if only the instructions had been a bit more, well, instructive…

Today’s blog is about writing good instructions for your readers.

You’re probably writing instructions without even realising it. Whenever you give out information that you want the reader to respond to, you’re giving instructions. It could be in an email to colleagues, a letter to your customers or a poster for the general public.

Here are some basic rules to remember:

  • Break it down

Break your instructions down into simple steps. There’s no point encouraging your reader to do something if they don’t know how to do it.

For example, don’t just tell the reader to come to your concert. Give them instructions about how to buy a ticket. Otherwise they probably won’t come.

If there are lots of steps, you might want to number them in a list.

  • Start from the start

To set a wool cycle, turn the dial to number 7, making sure you have already pressed the ‘Slow spin’ button. Press ‘Go’ after the green light flashes. Always use wool-friendly detergent, which you should pour into the funnel before shutting the door.

These instructions are confusing because they’re not in chronological order.

The reader is going to have to unjumble them in his head and work out which steps to do in which order.

Good instructions will already have the steps in the correct order, so that it’s easy for the reader to follow them.

In this case, the correct order would be:

To set a wool cycle, pour wool-friendly detergent into the funnel (always use wool-friendly detergent for a wool cycle). Shut the washing machine door and press the ‘Slow spin’ button. Turn the dial to number 7. When the green light flashes, press ‘Go’.

Much better!

  • Test it out

It’s really important to check that your instructions actually work. You’re an expert in this topic, but your reader probably won’t be.

It’s easy to forget this and miss out details that seem obvious to you. Remember, the reader doesn’t know what you know.

Ask a friend or colleague to try your instructions out. Or imagine programming them into a robot. Would it be able to follow them correctly?

Good instructions make all the difference, so it’s worth testing them out. Your readers will thank you for it.

What your audience need to do

 

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Welcome back to the blog for the third post in a three part series. We’ve been looking at three important questions to ask about your audience.

Click on the links to see the previous posts:

  1. Who are your audience?
  2. What do your audience need to know?

And now for our final question in this series:

3. What do your audience need to do?

Whatever your message is for your audience, you probably want them to take action in some way.

This will be fairly obvious if you’re writing instructions. Most of your message will be about spelling out what action to take:

To replace the calculator battery, use a screwdriver to remove the back panel. Take out the old battery and replace with a new one.

But it’s not just instructions that should have a clear ‘call to action’.

Let’s look at an example:

Dear resident,

We are delighted to announce that our waste management scheme will be coordinated by Wafflington Waste Solutions from 15th April 2019 onwards. As a result of this development, there are new timings and restrictions for bin collection in your area.

Kind regards,

Wafflington Town Council

This letter has failed to direct the reader to take action. The writer hasn’t told them when they need to put their bin out or where they can find out about the restrictions.

Without any clear instructions to follow, the reader can’t respond as the writer wants them to.

Let’s try again:

Dear resident,

We are delighted to announce that our waste management scheme will be coordinated by Wafflington Waste Solutions. 

From 15th April 2019 onwards, your waste will be collected on Monday mornings. Please put your green bin out in the designated area before 8am.

For full details of what kinds of waste you can dispose of in your green bin, please visit our website: http://www.wafflingtoncouncil/waste

Kind regards,

Wafflington Town Council

I’m not saying that this makes for gripping reading, but at least the reader knows what to do next.

Your message will only be a success if your readers respond.

So what do you want your reader to do?

Apply for a job at your company? Pay their outstanding bills? Visit your carpet shop?

Whatever it is, make sure you spell it out clearly and simply. Give a direct call to action and your audience will follow.

 

What your audience need to know

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Welcome back to Write for Real People. Last time we looked at the first of three key questions to ask about your audience. They’re questions that can help you work out what you want to say. We started off simply with ‘Who are your audience?’.

This week we’re moving on to a second great question:

What do your audience need to know?

As a writer you have a message to communicate. Your job is to pass this information onto your readers. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazingly easy to miss out key details and leave your audience guessing.

Here’s an example of some information on a road sign:

There are road closures in this area for structural repairs. Diversions are available.

The writer has been quite stingy with the details here. Without good local knowledge, the reader might find it hard to understand this information. Which roads are closed and for how long? How do you find the diversion routes?

It would help if the writer could be more specific:

The Fortnal Bridge Road is closed from 1st to 30th May for structural repairs. For a diversion via the A21, please follow the yellow signs.

This is much more helpful.

Asking the question ‘What do the audience need to know?’ makes your writing efficient and effective.

Make a list of the key points you want to include in your writing and check them off as you go. Think of questions your readers might have about your topic and see if you can get all the answers in your written text.

Too much information?

There are some things that your audience just doesn’t need to know. As the writer, you have all the information, but only some of it will be important to your reader.

While some writers can be stingy with the details, others can be a little bit too generous…:

As announced on 18th March, the Fortnal Bridge Road has been closed by Wafflington Town Council from 1st to 30th May for structural repairs to the bridge’s left masonry joint and brickwork. For a diversion via the A21, please follow the yellow signs. The councillors and local highway authorities would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused.

If this information was in a bridge enthusiasts’ magazine, the high level of detail might be appropriate.

For most people, these extra facts add nothing. They actually make it harder to pick out the useful information.

Good writers do this filtering first, and only give the reader what they need to know.

This is why we started with ‘Who are your audience?’ as the first question. It all begins with using your imagination and getting into your readers’ heads.

Work out who they are and what they need to know, and the rest will come naturally.

 

Are you stingy or generous when it comes to details in your writing? Let me know in the comments below…

 

 

Getting to know your audience

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After revealing ‘My number #1 writing tip’ in my last post, I thought it would be helpful to explain a bit more about how to put it into practice. If you missed the tip, you might want to go back and read it here first.

Over the next three blogs, we’ll be looking at three great questions to ask about your audience. They’re questions that can help you work out what you want to say. After that, the rest is easy.

Let’s get started with the first (and most obvious) question:

‘Who are your audience?’

When you meet someone in person, the way you speak will depend on who they are and what kind of relationship you have with them.

For example, you might talk in quite a formal way in a meeting with a solicitor, but it would be weird to talk like that with your brother or sister.

It’s the same with writing. Identifying your audience (the people you’re writing for) is a really important step. The better you understand them, the more effective your writing will be.

To get to know your audience, spend some time thinking about

  • who exactly you’re writing for

Your audience might be a very specific group of people.

If you’re a school receptionist writing a termly newsletter, your audience is parents of children who attend that school.

With this audience in mind, you will probably want to write in a polite and friendly tone. You know that parents are usually busy so it will be best to keep the newsletter short and sweet.

Your audience might be a much broader group.

If you’re a pilates instructor and you’re writing an advert about a new Wednesday morning beginners’ class, your audience is anyone who’s free at that time in the local area. They’re likely to be new to pilates and might be looking for a way to do more exercise.

For this audience, you want to be enthusiastic and encouraging in the way you write. You want your readers to know they’re welcome to come along, whatever their previous experience.

  • what their wants and needs are

If you can provide your audience with what they might want or need, make that really clear.

School parents need to know about school events, like non-uniform days. There’s a lot to remember as a parent, so they’ll want a school newsletter that makes key dates easy to read.

The key dates for your diary this term are Thursday 17th June (sports day) and Tuesday 2nd July (parents’ evening).

Potential pilates class members might want to get fit and meet new people, so an advert that mentions this is going to get them interested straight away.

  • their relationship with you

Even if you don’t know your audience in person, they may already have assumptions or opinions about the company you work for or the kind of people you represent.

For example, some people might be a bit intimidated by the idea of doing pilates and assume that you’ll be just like their scary sports teacher from school. By writing in a friendly, approachable tone of voice, you can show them there’s nothing to worry about.

This gentle class for complete beginners will take you through the basics of pilates step by step. It’s a fun, relaxed environment and you don’t need any previous experience.

 

So, how well do you know your audience? A bit of empathy and imagination is all it takes to tailor your writing to your readers and get your message across effectively.

Next time we’ll be looking at another important question to help you write well for your audience. In 2019 I’ll be posting every other Monday, so come back on 4 February for the next Write for Real People instalment…