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.

 

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.

Workshop: Hey, you!

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On Monday we learned how to use the second person pronoun ‘you’ to your advantage. Today we’re going to try it out on this piece of writing:

Hey you 1

The name ‘Speedy Clean’ sounds fun and friendly, but here the writer has chosen a rather formal and old-fashioned tone. They are not addressing the reader directly, referring to them instead as ‘residents’ or ‘interested customers’:

Hey you 2

These are all areas where we can inject a bit more life by addressing the reader in the second person (‘you’).

Let’s see how that changes things:

Hey you 3

By addressing ‘you’ we’ve made this advert friendlier and more engaging. Whether you want to give important information or just to sell something, like in this advert, the second person pronoun is a great way to get the reader’s attention.

So, what do you think? Let us know how you use the second person pronoun in the comments below…

Like a boss

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When you’re writing instructions, don’t be afraid of being bossy. The most effective instructions often use direct language and imperative verbs (verbs which give a command).

For example:

Do not smoke in the building.

Wash your hands after feeding the animals.

These instructions are clear and helpful. The language is direct, the tone is authoritative and the message is easy to follow.

You might be worried about sounding demanding or rude if you used commands like these in your writing. Perhaps you’d be more likely to write something like this:

Please try to avoid smoking in the building.

We recommend that you wash your hands after feeding the animals.

The tone here is certainly softer, but the message just isn’t as powerful.

Here’s why you should use the imperative:

1.) You’re the boss

If you (or your organisation) are giving instructions, take charge with your words. Your reader needs to hear what you’ve got to say and follow the directions you give them. They won’t be surprised when you tell them what to do (or what not to do).

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never say ‘please’. Use it sparingly though. You don’t want to sound as though you’re pleading with your reader.

For example, these instructions could do with being much more direct:

Please try to be considerate of other passengers on the bus wherever possible. We ask that you avoid putting your bags on the seats. If you could take all litter home with you, this would be greatly appreciated. We would like to advise you that the blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly. 

In an effort to be polite, the writer has made these instructions very long-winded and rather feeble. They don’t sound like authoritative commands, just the vain wishes of a rather desperate bus driver.

Let’s see if we can make some improvements:

Please be considerate of other passengers on the bus. Do not put your bags on the seats. Take all litter home with you. The blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly. 

2.) Direct instructions are safer instructions

Using direct commands usually makes your writing clearer. If you are giving your reader directions for their safety or wellbeing, don’t make them sound like mere suggestions. You don’t want your reader to treat them as optional.

For example:

If there is a fire, we recommend that you leave the building as soon as possible. You are advised to use the nearest fire exit. Please avoid taking any belongings with you.

Here, the writer sounds as though they’re afraid of sounding too bossy. In reality, the reader needs to be told with authority that they MUST leave the building in the event of a fire. In an attempt to sound polite, the writer has diluted the meaning and implied that leaving the building is only a ‘recommendation’. In this case, a more direct command is a safer choice:

If there is a fire, leave the building immediately. Use the nearest fire exit. Do not take anything with you.

 

Follow these simple tips and you’ll be giving instructions like a boss in no time.

Come back on Thursday to see this tip in action.