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.

 

Workshop: Cut it short

 

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In our last workshop of 2018, it’s time to try out some short sentences.

Here’s what we’re working with:

Cut it short

The writer has used some quite wordy sentences here. It’s a dense block of text, made up of three long sentences without much light and shade.

By breaking up some of those long sentences, we can bring a bit more rhythm to this piece of writing. We’re aiming for a mixture of short and long sentences.

We could also try rewriting some of the wordier parts altogether. Obviously, we don’t want to lose any of the information the writer has included. This is just about finding shorter ways to say the same things.

Let’s see what difference those tactics make:

Cut it short 2

With a few subtle changes, we’ve brought a sense of rhythm and pace back to the text. It’s easier and more interesting to read, and it no longer looks like a big clump of words on the page.

Short sentences for the win!

Look out for some festive posts on Write for Real People in the next few days. It’s nearly Christmas…

 

Cut it short

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Short sentences are great.

They’re quick. They’re punchy. They catch your reader’s eye.

Here are three top tips for using them in your writing:

Mix it up

Whatever you’re writing, short sentences can help to break up the text.

Great writers use a mixture of sentence lengths. Next time you’re reading a good article online or in the newspaper, look at the sentences. You’ll usually find a mixture of long, medium and short sentences.

You can use a short sentence after a longer one to underline your point or simply to add rhythm:

We believe that some students have been taking books out of the university library, removing the covers and placing them on a different book to return to the library. This is theft.

After your visit to Wafflington Cathedral we recommend that you cross the Southgate Bridge to Drawnbeck Hill. The view is spectacular.

 

Watch out for the runaway sentence

A ‘run on’ sentence is a sentence that runs on and on and on:

On Saturdays we come in at 8am so that the trampolines are set up in time for the Kids’ Club but on the first Friday of every month we have an evening session for primary school children so on those weeks we can leave the trampolines out overnight so we don’t need to come in until 8.30am.

Wow.

That is a monster sentence. Let’s try and break it up into more manageable chunks:

On most Saturdays we come in at 8am to set up the trampolines in time for the Kids’ Club.

However, on the first Friday of every month we have an evening session for primary school children. On those weeks we can leave the trampolines out overnight so we don’t need to come in until 8.30am.

Much better.

 

Divide and conquer

As a writer, it’s easy to get carried away. You might not be in the habit of writing ‘run on’ sentences, but perhaps you are rather partial to a sentence that (like this one) is somewhat longer than it really needs to be.

Here’s another example of a long sentence:

Although the first set of results might lead us to assume that Agro Fertiliser was the most effective product, the subsequent tests show that the RadiGrow Formula was in fact the standout product overall.

This is a perfectly fine sentence, but we can make it better. Let’s see if we can divide it up a bit.

The first set of results might lead us to assume that Agro Fertiliser was the most effective product.

However, the subsequent tests show that the RadiGrow Formula was in fact the standout product overall.

A very simple tweak gives us two shorter sentences. It’s quicker to read and easier to follow, but still quite formal. If you were writing a report, for example, this would work well.

But what if we wanted the sentences to be even shorter?

Look at the first set of results. Agro Fertiliser seems to be the most effective product.

However, the rest of the tests tell a different story.  It turns out that the RadiGrow Formula was the standout product overall.

With a little more work, we’ve ended up with four even shorter sentences. Very short sentences aren’t going to be appropriate in every context but they’re a great way to catch your reader’s attention and keep them reading.

 

Ready to start cutting down those sentences? Come back on Thursday for sentence trimming practice in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Cut the waffle

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One of the greatest threats to good writing is ‘waffle’.

The word ‘waffle’ may conjure up cosy images of hot waffles for breakfast with whipped cream and maple syrup, but in the writing world, waffle is much more dangerous.

Waffle is unnecessary text that suffocates your message.

Here’s an example:

While we recognise that all children develop at their own pace, it is generally recommended that babies, toddlers and small children are not left unsupervised with items that contain small parts, as this may cause choking. With this in mind, we advise that you avoid giving this product to any children under the age of three, to prevent this unlikely but serious outcome.

The writer has a very serious message to give, but he has cloaked it in so much unnecessary padding that it has completely lost its impact.

Let’s strip all that waffle away:

Do not give this product to children under the age of three. It contains small parts that may cause choking.

The result is a direct instruction that’s easy to follow and a clear concise explanation for it.

Diagnosing waffle

If you’re a serial waffler, don’t despair. It’s a common problem and it’s easily fixed. When you’ve identified the reason for the waffle, you can start cutting it out of your writing.

Here are three reasons for waffling and how to tackle them:

  1. You’re not exactly sure what you’re trying to say

If you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, take some time to work out what the key points of your message are. That’s the hard part. Once you know what you’re trying to say, you can just go ahead and say it.

  1. You’re worried about making your point directly

If you’re worried about making your point directly, ask yourself why that is. Perhaps you don’t want to sound ‘bossy’. Remember that your reader will expect you to give them instructions (take a look at our previous post on this topic: Like a boss).

Perhaps you will need to draw attention to something that’s awkward or unpleasant. It can be difficult to find the right words for a sensitive topic, but try to avoid lots of unnecessary skirting around the issue. Choose your words carefully, by all means, but make sure the essential information is easy to find and understand.

  1. You’re trying to make your writing sound impressive

If you’re trying to make your writing sound more impressive, you might need to consider whether this is a good strategy. Text that’s full of waffle just isn’t effective. Readers will give up on it, no matter how impressed they may be by the writer’s vocabulary.

This is a particularly bad tactic if you’re writing public information. Long, wordy paragraphs can intimidate the very people you’re trying to engage and educate. Shorter sentences and simpler words are usually the way to go.

 

Ready to start tackling the waffle? We’ll be back on Thursday for some waffle-busting fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.