Instructions -- Top 5 Tips

People who turn to instructions are probably already in a bad mood, because they have probably already tried on their own and given up.  Your job is to help a reader perform a particular task; your job is not to teach the reader everything you know about the subject.

Note: While the document you are reading now is about instructions, it is not an example of instructions -- it is, rather, a collection of tips.  I have organized the items in this list according to importance, starting with the most important information.  By contrast, instructions should be organized chronologically, starting with the things you have to do first.  See: Instructions.

1. Write commands.

Write each section as if the reader has just asked you, "Now what do I do?"  

If you want to activate the unit, the lid should be open before the start button is pressed.
The above sentence is not a command.
Activating the Unit
1. Open the lid.
2. Press the start button. (If the unit does not start, see the troubleshooting guide.)
The above example has split the original sentence into a title and two discreet actions.

2. Omit needless words.

People who read instructions are trying to accomplish a specific task. They will rarely pause to read a general overview or complex explanation of a subject. Move lengthy supplemental information into an appendix, footnote or even a separate document.   Restrict your main text to just those things the reader must know in order to perform the desired task.  (See Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, II.17).

3. Introduce each section.

Clearly state the purpose and scope of each section, so that your readers may determine which sections will help them with what they want to do.  Keep these statements as short as possible.

Assembling, Operating and Maintaining Product X

This document will help the average consumer assemble, operate, and maintain product X.   For a short essay on the history and development of product X, see page 12.

I. Assembly
Assembling product X involves two main steps: identifying the parts and putting them together.

A. Identifying the parts.  Parts for product X (shipped in a 24-inch by 36-inch cardboard box) include...
B. Putting the parts together.  Putting product X together involves...

II. Operation


III. Maintenance


4. Proceed in strict chronological order.

When you are describing steps that must be completed in a certain order, common sense insists that you start with the first step.  (You would be surprised to learn how many of my students describe steps out of order.) Number each step, in order to emphasize the sequence.  

Note: when you are providing a list of possibilities, which do not have to come in any particular order, use bullets instead of numbers.

Steps for a specific task, which must be completed in a specific order.
(These items are arranged in strict chronological order.)
A general essay, offering options and possibilities.
(The text below is not a set of instructions. The items are not arranged chronologically; they are general tips, rather than specific commands.)

How to "Do the Hokey Pokey" 

The "Hokey Pokey" is a simple dance that helps teach toddlers the parts of the body.  It also helps tire toddlers out. 

Warning: encouraging your toddler to perform this dance just before naptime may cause the child to become excited or cranky.

In order to perform the "Hokey Pokey" dance, do the following:

  1. Stand in a circle. 
  2. Sing the following words, performing the actions described.
    1. "You put your right hand in."
      (Put your right hand into the center of the circle.)
    2. "You put your right hand out."
      (Let your right hand fall to your side.)
    3. "You put your right hand in."
      (Put your right hand back into the circle.)
    4. "And you shake it all about."
      (Shake your right hand vigorously.)
    5. "You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around."
      (Point your fingers towards the ceiling, and move your hands up and down, while turning in a small circle, until you are facing the center of the circle again.)
    6. "That's what it's all about!"
      (Giggle, clap, or otherwise communicate to your toddler the idea that the dance is fun.)
  3. Repeat step 2, substituting "right hand" with other terms (such as "left hand", "right foot," "left foot," "head", and "whole self") as desired.

There is no specific end to this song.  Continue as long as you wish.

Hint: If your objective for performing the "Hokey Pokey" is to tire out your toddler instead of yourself, you may omit the action of turning in a small circle at step 2.v.  As long as the toddler knows to turn around at that point, you can just stand still and watch your little maniac burn off some energy.

How to entertain your toddler

In order to spend quality time with your toddler, do the following:

  • Consider your child's developmental stage.
  • Determine what mood he or she seems to be in at the moment.
  • Pay close attention to what your child does and doesn't like.
  • Remember is that children imitate everything they see.

Consider your child's developmental stage

A youngster who is just learning to walk may be frustrated by the "Hokey Pokey" dance (which requires children to stand on one foot part of the time).   But if you play the game on a nice soft rug, and if you don't mind falling down yourself in order to keep your child company, then the "Hokey Pokey" dance can still be fun.  Before you know it, your toddler will be able to perform all the steps without any help. 

Determine what mood your toddler seems to be in at the moment

Most toddlers are so interested in their surroundings that they have trouble focusing on one thing for very long. If you are dead set on reading the literary classics to your toddler, but he or she keeps grabbing the book out of your hand and making up stories to go along with the pictures, don't punish your toddler by insisting on finishing the story.   When children get a little older, they get interested in complex stories again; but for the time being,  just sit back and watch your child's imagination blossom.

Pay close attention to what your child does and doesn't like. 

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Remember that children imitate everything they see. 

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5. Provide supplements

A simple set of instructions can be made much more useful with the addition of sections such answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs), or a troubleshooting guide.  Try to handle all the important or common problems in the main body of the step-by-step descriptions; for minor problems or really weird special situations, you can refer the reader to a detailed FAQ or troubleshooting supplement.

A troubleshooting guide is typically a table, with specific problems on the left, and suggested remedies on the right.  Organize your table so that the most common problems come first; organize the solutions in a similar manner.

Problem Possible Solutions
The monitor is blank. Are any lights showing on the front of the monitor?
Yes Check the video cable (see step 4.2)
Check the software configuration (see step 8)
No Check the power cords (see step 4.1)

If the problem persists, send the unit to the nearest authorized repair center (see section 12).