Step by step

man wearing blue sports shirt and backpack passing through pink wall
Photo by Akil Mansoor Kodakkadan on Pexels.com

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.