How do I…? (Instructions)
Try to think of a procedure or activity you’re expert in. Maybe you throw a curveball, or bake the perfect cupcake, or play the Game of Thrones theme song on a ukulele. Everyone has some kind of expertise they’re capable of sharing with the world. And someone else may have a need for that expertise.
The audience should be someone who has never done what you’re telling them how to do but for whom this topic is not a completely foreign concept. That’s all we’ll say for now because one of your first steps will be to more deeply consider the exact audience you want to write for.
The audience has a need—for a birthday cupcake, to play the Game of Thrones theme song on a ukulele, or whatever—and they have turned to you as an expert in helping fulfill this need. Don’t be shy about it. Be the expert you are.
- Conceive the task
- Spend some time inventorying your own expertise. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What do you take pride in? Make a list.
- Select your subject. What one skill do you think best lends itself to this particular writing-related problem? Why have you chosen that one?
- Plan. A good way of preparing to write the solution to this writing-related problem is to do the action itself while taking careful notes along the way.
- Analyze your audience. Who is your audience? We know their need (to do what you already know how to do), but what might their attitudes be toward the task? Excitement? Fear? Something else? Additionally, what about their knowledge? To successfully execute the mission, what will they need to know or be able to do prior to engaging with your solution to this writing-related problem?
- Find and analyze models. Look for models that serve similar purposes. Where are instructions provided for readers who are relatively new to a certain task (Youtube, Google, etc.). Stay away from ones too closely related to your own task. You don’t want to risk copying; also, remember that you’re the expert here. While you don’t want to copy the content of the models, do look at how the models are formatted and structured. How do they begin? How is the information conveyed? What techniques will you use and choices will you make in your own instructions?
- Write the draft. Doing your best to meet your audience’s needs, draft your document. Use your models to help guide your approach. For our purposes, you’re restricted to “text only” instructions. No diagrams or illustrations are allowed or required.
- Test the draft. Give your draft to someone else. Ideally, you can exchange drafts with someone else in this class so you can get a perspective on the experience from the standpoint of an audience. If possible, have them attempt the task by following your directions while you do the same with their task. If that isn’t possible, try to visualize the process while reading. Would a reader be successful? Where might they be confused or even lost? Identify those sections. Areas of confusion in need of additional clarity, as well as those elements that work well, should be specifically identified and discussed.
- Revise: Based on the feedback, as well as any additional insights gained along the way, revise the draft to improve its effectiveness. Think of your audience and their needs.
- Edit and Polish: Even small errors can throw off an audience that’s trying to follow the instructions closely. Mistakes that could have easily been fixed may also shake their confidence in the quality of your instructions.
Writing instructions using only text was probably pretty hard. What could be done differently if you had the benefit of illustrations?
Is the cliche of a picture being worth a thousand words true in this case?
Is there an even better way? Would your task be better learned by a different method? What about a video or other visual stimulation? What would be the trade-off between text instructions and video instructions? When would one be more useful than the other?
Or is your task something that would best be done in a live setting, either one-on-one with you as the expert or in a class setting? How would the different atmospheres change the learning? How would your role as the expert change?
What’s best? Given total freedom to craft a solution to this problem, what method would you use and why? How and why is this best for the audience? (It may even be a combination of methods.)