3rd March 2021
5 Top Tips for Writing Clear Instructions
Instructions need to be easy to follow if they’re going to be useful. But how can you ensure this? We have five tips to help you write clear instructions:
- Write an introduction explaining what the instructions will cover.
- Break down the task into clear, logical steps.
- Use the imperative mood when writing up your instructions for clarity.
- Write instructions using simple, easy-to-understand language.
- Get your instructions proofread to make sure they’re error free.
We will look at these tips for writing clear instructions in more detail below.
1. Write an Introduction
Start your instructions with a short introduction. This should detail:
- Exactly what the instructions will cover and what the end result will be.
- How the instructions are set out and how to use them.
- Any equipment or prior knowledge needed to complete the task.
- Any hazards the user should know about before starting.
The content of your introduction will depend on what your instructions are for, but the key idea is preparing your reader to follow your directions.
Imagine, for example, you were explaining how to put together a piece of furniture. You could begin your instructions with a short introduction that:
- Briefly explains the aim of the instructions and illustrates the finished piece.
- Explains how to use the instructions (e.g., how illustrations relate to text).
- Lists the tools and skills needed for the job.
- Warns that using the wrong tools could damage the furniture.
The reader would then be prepared to start doing the task described.
2. Break the Task Down into Steps
Clear instructions will break the process you are explaining down into logical steps. You can then present these steps as a numbered list made up of short sentences.
Each step should cover a single action. However, the detail you go into may depend on what your intended reader is likely to know. For instance, if we were writing a proofreading guide for experienced Microsoft Word users, we might start with:
1. Open the document and turn on the Track Changes mode.
But if we were writing for someone new to Word, we might break this down more:
1. Double click the document icon to open it in Microsoft Word.
2. Go to the Review tab on the main ribbon.
3. Find the “Tracking” section and click the “Track Changes” button.
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For more complex instructions with many steps, you might also want to break them down into sections. In a recipe for an especially elaborate cake, for instance, you could group instructions under headings for different parts (e.g., one set of instructions for the main cake, then separate sections for the filling and icing).
This allows the reader to take on one short set of instructions at a time, thus ensuring they don’t become confusing or overwhelming.
3. Write Clearly and Concisely
As well as breaking down the task into steps, each instruction should be clear and concise in itself. A few tips for ensuring clarity when writing instructions include:
- Address the reader directly in the imperative mood. This means phrasing each instruction as a command or request.
- Watch out for repetition, redundancy, and other forms of wordiness.
- Avoid unnecessary jargon and use everyday language where possible.
The key is to adapt the complexity of the language in your instructions to suit the needs of your intended reader. If you think the reader will be unfamiliar with any technical terms you do use, moreover, define them clearly when they’re introduced.
4. Use Visuals to Back Up the Text
Visuals, such as technical illustrations, can give a point of reference that purely text-based instructions never can, thus making them easier to use.
Visuals also transcend language barriers, so the more you can get across visually, the more people will be able to use your instructions.
If appropriate, then, consider adding images at key points. Focus on steps that might be difficult to understand otherwise, and make sure to label images clearly.
For digital or online instructions, you could even embed or link to a video. This could be for the entire process. Or it could just be to clarify specific steps (e.g., a video demonstrating a technique used during a single step).
5. Proofread Your Instructions
When you have a draft of your instructions, it’s time for quality control! The best method for this is to ask someone to follow your instructions in practice.
If they complete the task based on your instructions alone, then you have a good, clear set of instructions! But if they struggle with anything, revisit the problem step(s) and redraft for clarity. Don’t forget to ask your test user for feedback, too.
Once you are happy with your draft, you can move on to proofreading. This will ensure your instructions are error free and clearly phrased throughout. It is a good idea to use a professional proofreading service for this, as it is easy to miss errors in your own work. And our expert proofreaders are always on hand to help!
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