Writing Instructions

One of the most common and important uses of technical writing is instructions, those step-by-step explanations of how to do things: assemble something, operate something, repair something, or explain a personal process (enrolling in college, for example) so that readers may better understand it and possibly complete it themselves.

Writers of instructions should:

  • Use clear, simple writing whenever possible.
  • Have a thorough understanding of the process in all its technical detail.
  • Work toward putting yourself in the place of the reader who will be using your instructions.

Getting Started

Purpose: At the beginning of a project to write instructions, it’s important to determine the purpose of your instructions—in most cases, the purpose of instructions is to inform/explain how to do something.

Audience and situation: Early in the process, define the audience and situation of your instructions. Remember that defining an audience means defining its level of knowledge and familiarity with the topic. It is sometimes helpful to describe your audience to yourself first, and then use that to assess your message at the end to be certain it’s appropriate for your audience.

Layout and design: Ask yourself how your document should look. What should be at the top? How should the steps be labeled? What will be in bold? What should be written as bullet points and what should be written in paragraph form?

Number of tasks: An important consideration is how many steps (or tasks) there are in your set of instructions (or procedure).

The term procedure can be used to refer to the whole set of activities your instructions are intended to discuss, while a task refers to a semi-independent group of actions within the procedure: for example, setting the clock on a microwave oven is one task in the big overall procedure of operating a microwave oven.

A procedure like changing the oil in a car contains only one task; there are no semi-independent groupings of activities. A procedure like using a microwave oven, on the other hand, contains plenty of such semi-independent tasks: setting the clock, setting the power level, using the timer, cleaning and maintaining the microwave, among others.

Some instructions have only a single task, but have many steps within that single task.

Organizing the Instructions

Introduction: Plan the introduction to your instructions carefully. Be sure to:

  • Indicate the specific tasks or procedure to be explained.
  • Indicate what the audience needs in terms of knowledge and background to understand the instructions.
  • Give a general idea of the procedure and what it accomplishes.
  • Indicate the conditions when these instructions should (or should not) be used.
  • Give an overview of the contents of the instructions.

General warning, caution, danger notices: Instructions must also alert readers to the possibility of ruining their equipment, screwing up the procedure, and/or hurting themselves. Also, instructions must often emphasize key points or exceptions. For these situations, you should use Note, Warning, Caution, and/or Danger to signal to your reader/user. 

Technical background or theory: At the beginning of some instructions (after the introduction), writers will include a discussion of background related to the procedure. For certain instructions, this background is critical—otherwise, the steps in the procedure make no sense.

Equipment and supplies: Most instructions include a list of the things you need to gather before you start the procedure. This includes equipment, the tools you use in the procedure (such as mixing bowls, spoons, bread pans, hammers, drills, and saws) and supplies, the things that are consumed in the procedure (such as wood, paint, oil, flour, and nails). In instructions, these typically are listed either in a simple vertical list or in a two-column list. Use the two-column list if you need to add some specifications to some or all of the items—for example, brand names, sizes, amounts, types, model numbers, and so on.

Discussion of the steps: When you get to the actual writing of the steps be certain to carefully consider the structure and format of those steps, any supplementary information that might be needed, and the point of view and general writing style of the instructions. One point of view used often in technical writing is the second person, which is addressing the audience as ‘you.’ Be sure to keep your sentences clear and brief, and try to keep your language consistent whenever possible.

License

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Technical Writing for Technicians by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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