Instructions: How to Write for Busy, Grouchy People

People hate reading instructions, and will only glance at them when they are hopelessly lost. By then, they will already be frustrated and behind schedule. For this reason, you should organize your instructions carefully, phrase them clearly, and make them as brief as you possibly can.

This document introduces five basic principles about writing instructions. Any professional writing textbook will have a long section on writing instructions and manuals, but the basics are as follows:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Provide a brief introduction.
  3. Write each step as a command.
  4. Use numbers for commands, bullets for options.
  5. Plan to test and revise.

1. Know your audience.

Most college assignments are written for an ideal reader -- an expert whose job includes scrutinizing and pondering everything that you write. But in the real world, write instructions so that impatient, fatigued, or even terrified readers can understand with minimal effort. No matter how well you plan your document, there is no way you can possibly predict all the ways that human beings will misunderstand it.

2. Provide a brief introduction.

Help your readers determine, even before opening the brochure or downloading the web page, whether this document will help them do whatever it is they want to do. State in plain language, what your document will help the reader to do: "Installing and Operating the Canon BJ-200ex Bubble Jet Printer."

What is the purpose of the document, who should read it, and under what circumstances? If it will help your reader, you might also explain what your document does not do.  If you wish, you may place extended background information in a subordinate position (a marginal note, a sidebar, or a completely different document) that does not interfere with the user's access to the list of required actions.  Note: Technical support documents are no place for marketing slogans  -- the reader has already got the product, and is probably annoyed with it at the moment.

3. Write each step as a command.

Use the the imperative mood -- that is, phrase each step as if your reader has just asked, "What should I do next?" Answer by giving a direct command: "Add two cups of flour."

"Tab A should be inserted into slot B."
"Insert tab A into slot B."

Note: most readers will skip the introduction and start reading at the first numbered step. If your user will have to know a lot of background information before beginning, put the vital information into the form of a checklist, rather than a long, discursive essay.

4. Use numbers for commands, bullets for options.

Since some readers will only need help for one section of a larger operation, divide up your instructions according to discrete subtasks.  If you want your reader to perform tasks in a specific sequence, number the steps. If you want your reader to choose from among a list of options, bullet the options (otherwise the reader won't know when to stop). Write brief introductions to each section, to clarify whether a list of steps is supposed to be sequential or optional.

Making A Lime and Coconut Drink

These instructions describe how to make one serving of the beverage described in the "Lime in the Coconut" song.  It also explains what to do if the drink makes you sick, and suggests ways you might try to get the annoying tune out of your head.

I. Preparing the Drink
You will need one (1) lime and one (1) coconut.

  1. Take lime.
  2. Take coconut.
  3. Put the lime in the coconut.
  4. Drink it right up.

II. If You Get Sick
Drinking the lime and the coconut may result in indigestion. In case of a bellyache, do the following:

  1. Call the doctor. 
  2. Wake him up, if necessary.
  3. Say, "Doctor! Is there nothing I can take, I say Doctor! To relieve this belly ache!"

III. Suggestions for Getting the Tune Out of Your Head
You might try any or all of the following.  Repeat as necessary, until the ringing in your ears drowns out the song, or until you lose consciousness.

  • Hit yourself on the head with the coconut, or
  • Listen to a Britney Spears album, or
  • Dwell in misery upon your misguided, sinful life.

5. Plan to Test and Revise

Instead of investing your resources into polishing your first draft, create a prototype and conduct usability testing on it. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn.

  1. As closely as is practical, simulate the environment in which you intend your audience to follow your instructions.
  2. Find a volunteer who represents the intended audience, and ask him or her to follow your instructions.  
  3. Keep quiet and take careful note of any problems. 
  4. Revise your document, and then try again with another volunteer.  
  5. Repeat until you are satisfied with the results. 

For larger, more complex projects, use five test subjects for each trial run.   See: Usability Testing.

See also:

Instructions -- Top 5 Tips
MLA Style: Using MS-Word to Format a Paper (example of detailed instructions)

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