Jennifer Tribe

Article Summary:

How to write how-to instructions.


Many information products deal with how-to topics. Readers buy these products to learn the specific steps and elements of successfully completing a particular project. For example, they might want to know how to decorate a small balcony, how to write a press release, or how to meditate.

If readers aren't successful in completing the project by following the steps you've described, then your information product isn't doing its job. Make sure your instructions are clear, practical and easy to follow. Below are seven tips that will help you improve your how-to writing.

1) Know your readers and their level of subject matter expertise.
Tailor the detail of your instructions accordingly. "Defrag your hard drive" may bewilder a computer beginner but might be all the explanation a technology specialist needs.

2) Limit the number of steps to nine or fewer.
Research shows that the human mind can effectively process and remember no more than nine things at a time. If you have more than nine items, try breaking them into two or more sets of instructions.

For example, let's say your instructions on creating a press release have 16 steps. You might put 9 steps under the heading Writing Your Press Release and 7 steps under Sending Out Your Press Release.

3) Start each step with a verb.
Use the active voice and keep sentences short to make each step easy to read and understand.

4) Keep the focus clearly on the task you're describing.
If detailed definitions, examples or background explanations need to be included, consider placing them in a sidebar where they won't interrupt the flow of the task.

5) Help readers avoid what you know are common mistakes.
Example: Make sure to dry the pieces for at least 24 hours or they will warp.

6) Provide readers with opportunities to assess their successful progress through the steps, if possible.
Example: If formatted correctly, your page should now appear as a series of grid lines.

7) Test the clarity of your instructions by having someone else (with the same level of expertise as your readers) follow the steps exactly as you've written them.
Did the project turn out as expected? Did they run into problems or have questions as they went along? Use the feedback to fine-tune your writing.

Nothing is more frustrating than instructions that are confusing or hard to follow. Take the time to think through each step of the process you're explaining and use the tips above to describe them effectively. Your readers will thank you.

Jennifer Tribe is the president of Juiced Consulting, a company that helps business owners turn their expertise into money-making information products like books, special reports, teleclasses, and audiotapes and CDs. Jennifer holds a degree in journalism and has worked extensively as a writer and editor. Her articles on information products have been published in Management Magazine, Home Business Magazine, BusinessWoman Canada, and other leading publications. Subscribe to her free e-zine, Infopreneuring Strategies, at www.juiced

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