Writing Clear Instructions

Or how thinking ‘inside the kitchen’ can help you create instructions fit for purpose.

It might not be the most obvious thing to be grateful for, but every day I give thanks for poorly-written instructions. If not for a set of cluttered, unclear and downright dangerous instructions on how to clean my new food processor some thirty years ago, I might not have ended up working with words every day.

That set of instructions said, ‘To clean the cutting blade, remove it from the base and wash it in warm soapy water, rinsing well afterwards. But before you do this, ensure that the power is off and the unit is disconnected from the power source.’

Luckily, I had already unplugged it from the power-point, as I’d anticipated ‘fingers + rapidly moving blades = bad’, so I didn’t end up a bloodstained mess on the kitchen floor. But it set me thinking. Who had written these instructions and why had they felt the safety measures should have been placed after the cleaning instructions?

Of course, these days you can’t miss the red, bold-type safety warnings all over instructions, but in my experience that doesn’t necessarily make them any clearer.

Instructions are like recipes

The first thing I’d say about writing clear instructions is that it helps to think about them as if they were recipes. Just as recipes require you to bring a number of things together in a particular order and apply a certain process to them (with the ideal result being the desired outcome), so too do instructions. Further, both require the writer to have a clear understanding of the task, a sense of the skill level one needs in order to attempt it and how to judge if the final product is fit for purpose.

Instructions and recipes both follow a standard format. The ingredients, tools and materials required are listed first, then there is a step-by-step method for bringing them all together. At every step of the way, a recipe will tell the reader what to expect and what to watch out for. The best instructions also indicate what the reader should expect to see when they undertake a particular step. For example, ‘Press <enter>. The ‘checkout’ screen will be displayed.’ Similarly, any safety issues are presented not only at the introduction to the piece but also in the body of the method so the reader is forewarned and reminded what to watch out for.

Key steps

Writing recipes and instructions both require four key steps:

  1. Understand the task.
  2. Draft the text and consider the audience.
  3. Test the instructions.
  4. Review and publish.

Understand the task

The person who is writing the instructions is often a specialist or at the very least someone who can complete the task without supervision. However, they may be operating from a place of ‘unconscious competence’; that is, they know a process so intimately that certain steps are second nature to them. This can lead to critical steps being missed, misunderstandings about how a process should be undertaken and sometimes, as in my food processor example above, the very real possibility of putting the reader in danger. My guess is that the writer of the food processor user guide always reads the instructions fully before starting a task; it’s second nature to them, so they’d never include that step in any instructions they might write.

Draft

With any writing task, a first draft is the place to get all your ideas down. Anything goes at this stage. There is no judgement. This is also the stage where you consider what you want the reader to do whilst they are reading the instructions. Do you want them to be able to describe a process or be able to do the task completely without supervision? The purpose of the instructions would be very different in these two cases.

You also need to consider what the person reading the instructions already knows, what they might not know and where the most common errors in process are likely to take place. Do they know how to separate an egg, for example? Or will they be complete beginners who would benefit from detailed instructions on how to do this step? Are they likely to be aware that you can’t add a cup of cold milk to hot soup without it curdling? Will they know not to take the blades out of a food processor whilst it’s still connected to the power?

One critical aspect of this stage is to establish when and under what circumstances the reader will be looking at your instructions for the first time. Consider instructions for a fire extinguisher. If the reader is going to be reading these during a controlled experiment in a training session with a fire warden on hand to put the fire out, the learner would be much calmer than if their stove has just erupted in an oil fire. Similarly, a person considering the dosage of children’s paracetamol will be in different states of mind if they are chatting to the pharmacist in their shop or have a baby screaming in agony at two in the morning in the next room.

This is where charts and illustrations can take centre stage. A well laid-out table or well-captioned illustration is much more use than detailed written instructions in cases where the reader is going to be in a heightened state of anxiety.

Knowing what you expect of your reader, who they are and when they are likely to read them will make an enormous difference in how clear and useful your instructions will be.

Review and publish

The final steps in this process are to review the instructions, preferably with someone in the target audience, and incorporate any changes in the final draft before publication.

These final two stages are where you consider if any unfamiliar terms need explanation, if the instructions are logical, how clear the diagrams and other visuals are and if the language is direct and uncluttered.

Reviewing and refining your instructions is a critical stage that is often missed. Some cookbooks have ‘triple tested’ printed across their covers to reassure potential buyers that their recipes will work every time. Imagine your instructions will have ‘triple tested’ in the header or footer as well and test them to ensure they work every time.

So, next time you sit down to write a set of instructions consider that you may be causing your reader unnecessary confusion, or worse, exposing them to danger. But also consider me – it’s hard enough earning a living as a writer and business writing coach without the competition of others taking up the mantle of instructional designer just because your terrible instructions compelled them to do so.

For a quick cheat sheet on these four steps, click here.

Want more tips and tricks like this one? Subscribe to my newsletter or click below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.