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Tips for Writing Instructions Readers Will Follow

Updated on March 23, 2016

Learning opportunities have evolved over the last couple of decades. As we move from in person classes, journals, and memos to email, online webinars, and now text it has become more important to understand how exactly we communicate what we need to our employees and co workers. There has been a lot of research over the last three decades on how adults learn. Out of that has come some very consistent ways to be successful in writing good instructions.


Good instructions are different than good prose. When you write a good story you want the reader to be captivated. You want them to want to get to the end so badly they cannot put what you have written down. The opposite is true of good instructions. People go to instructions because they have a task they want to complete and they do not know how. Your reader cares about the task at hand and not the instructions. Good instructions can be put down quickly. The faster your reader can put it down the better.

Make an Introduction

Tell people why they should care. Answer the four w’s; who, what, when, and why in a short introductory paragraph. The how will come later in your step-by-step instructions.

Know Your Audience

Every audience is a little different. You should always know your audience before you start. Write to the broader audience making sure that you write at a level the reader with the least experience and education can understand. Answer the following questions before you begin:

  • What is the purpose of these instructions?

  • What is the lowest level of education of my audience?

  • What is the average education of my audience?

  • How much experience does my average reader have?

  • How little experience will my least experienced reader have?

  • How familiar will my average reader be with this topic?

  • How familiar will be least experienced reader by with this topic?

  • How much skill will my average reader have regarding the task at hand?

  • How much skill does the least experienced reader have with the task at hand?

Get to the Point

This is not marketing material. You do not have to convince the reader to buy, try, or do anything. Avoid adjectives and flowery sentences. Use as few words as possible. If a word does not add meaning to the task, take it out of the sentence. This is especially true if you are writing instructions that may be read online. Online readers are more likely to skim what they read than readers who are looking at paper. The more words you use, the more likely they are to miss what is important.

Use Pictures and Videos

Remember the old adage, a picture is worth a 1000 words. It is still true even in the 21st century. Whenever a picture will add clarity use one. The only time you should skip illustrations is when the instructions are meant for a audience that is ALL expert. Experts consider pictures demeaning. The rest of your readers will be grateful for a picture.

Videos are even better. This is why You Tube ® is so popular. Optional videos help beginners tremendously. Expert readers will likely skip the visual instruction. Everyone wins.

Use Seven Steps or Less

Most every instruction you will ever write can be broken down into five to seven steps. People cannot hold to many instructions in their memory at one time. Memory works a lot like RAM on a computer. A computer pulls up only the applications you need at one time. If you try to open too much, then it crashes. Just like a computer your reader does not access everything he o she knows at one time. Readers access a small chuck of memory at a time while the rest of their knowledge is safely stored in their brains. By breaking instructions into small groups of steps you ask your reader to store the steps in memory the same way your reader will need to access them later, in small chunks.

Use headlines to separate chunks of information so that your reader can think of the headline and bring up the steps in memory later on. This will also help your reader go to the part of the instructions if he or she needs a quick review of a few steps later. At first it may seem awkward to break up steps for one task into two or three chucks of information but there are natural breaks in every set of instructions. For example almost any set of steps can be broken down into preparing to do the task and doing the task.

If you write a long set of steps you can go back and break them up at the process level. In any set of thirty or more steps you will cover more than one process. For example if you are writing about how to repair a piece of equipment the reader will need to gather the necessary tools and information, examine the broken equipment, remove the malfunctioning piece, replace the piece, and test the equipment to be sure it works again. This trick helps your reader with more experience read less than your beginner.

Each of these processes has unique steps. The whole task is to fix the broken equipment. Understanding the task is easier in chunks. If a reader knew everything but how to remove the broken piece, he or she would only need to read that chuck. Without headlines the reader would have to read through several steps he or she already knows.

Remember Less is More

Like Twitter® sentences in instructions should be as short as possible. Click Save is better than Click the Save button to store the data. More words do not make the sentence clearer. In fact, more words may make the instruction more confusing. As a rule your sentences should never be more than 23 words long. If you cannot say what needs to be said in 23 words you have probably combined two steps into one. Separate the steps into two shorter sentences.

Create a Bolded Outline

A broad range of people will likely need to read your instructions. Experts are annoyed by having to read too much. Help your expert readers by bolding key words in steps like the example below:

A very experienced reader may only need an outline to know what to do next. He or she will appreciate your help in getting back to the task at hand more quickly by not having to read every word.

This is especially true for technical instructions. Often very experienced technical readers will have done similar tasks many times. The experienced technical reader needs only to know what is different. He or she will not care about the steps they already understand.

In order for this trick to work the bolded words should read like abbreviated instructions. Read your bolded instructions separately to make sure you have a good outline without any steps missing. Remember your experienced reader is unlikely to read anything but the bolded words.

Use Seven Steps or Less

Most every instruction you will ever write can be broken down into five to seven steps. People cannot hold to many instructions in their memory at one time. Memory works a lot like RAM on a computer. A computer pulls up only the applications you need at one time. If you try to open too much, then it crashes. Just like a computer your reader does not access everything he o she knows at one time. Readers access a small chuck of memory at a time while the rest of their knowledge is safely stored in their brains. By breaking instructions into small groups of steps you ask your reader to store the steps in memory the same way your reader will need to access them later, in small chunks.

Use headlines to separate chunks of information so that your reader can think of the headline and bring up the steps in memory later on. This will also help your reader go to the part of the instructions if he or she needs a quick review of a few steps later. At first it may seem awkward to break up steps for one task into two or three chucks of information but there are natural breaks in every set of instructions. For example almost any set of steps can be broken down into preparing to do the task and doing the task.

If you write a long set of steps you can go back and break them up at the process level. In any set of thirty or more steps you will cover more than one process. For example if you are writing about how to repair a piece of equipment the reader will need to gather the necessary tools and information, examine the broken equipment, remove the malfunctioning piece, replace the piece, and test the equipment to be sure it works again. This trick helps your reader with more experience read less than your beginner.

Each of these processes has unique steps. The whole task is to fix the broken equipment. Understanding the task is easier in chunks. If a reader knew everything but how to remove the broken piece, he or she would only need to read that chuck. Without headlines the reader would have to read through several steps he or she already knows.

Less is More

Like Twitter® sentences in instructions should be as short as possible. Click Save is better than Click the Save button to store the data. More words do not make the sentence clearer. In fact, more words may make the instruction more confusing. As a rule your sentences should never be more than 23 words long. If you cannot say what needs to be said in 23 words you have probably combined two steps into one. Separate them into two shorter sentences.

Make Notes and Give Warnings

Put helpful information in Notes or Caution statements. If you think the reader will need extra information to be successful be sure to add it. You want the reader to have all the information he or she will need.

If there are no safety issues involved, add the additional information as a note. If however, there is any danger of something harmful happening from loosing important data to possible death, create a Caution or Warning message. Caution and Warnings should be the most prominent text on the page or screen. Bold, underline, and / or make the text another color. Do whatever you can to help the reader notice this most important information.

Number Your Instructions

Steps should always be numbered. The purpose of the numbers is to indicate that order matters. When order does not matter use bullet points. For example if you have a list of criteria to be considered and none is more important than the other, then use a bullet list. Steps are linear. The instructions will not work if you do three first and five second. You must follow each direction in the order it is listed.

Avoid Abbreviations and Conjunctions

Unlike Twitter, you will not show how cool you are by using abbreviations only the inner circle will understand. Though each industry has its own jargon and you want to use the appropriate wording to be clear be careful to use language everyone will understand even if they are new to the job.

Conjunctions can be problematic as well. Many languages do not have conjunctions. Two words are never strung together like won’t or can’t in other languages. Your reader whose first language is not English may sometimes struggle with conjunctions. You should always assume you have a multicultural audience. Avoiding conjunctions avoids confusion.

Keep It Simple

Choose the simplest wording you can in instructions. Your readers do not need to know how smart you are because frankly, they do not care. Your reader also does not need to prove how smart he or she is by understanding multi-syllable words meant for college essays. You can test the complexity of your instructions by selecting the text and checking the grade level on most word processing software.

As a rule, you want to write to a seventh grade level if you are writing to adults regardless of their hirer education level. Even readers with graduate degrees appreciate simple easy to read instructions. Your reader will almost never be fully focused. Your reader’s true focus is on the task at hand. He or she is also dealing with all the other distractions around as well.

Scientific or technical instructions will by their nature require the use of more complex language. Even so, most instructions can be written to an average seventh grade level. The only exception to the seventh grade level is when you are writing instructions that may be read by readers who left school in high school. If you know your audience is likely to include people with a 11th grade or lower education instructions should be written to a fifth grade level.

Be Redundant

In instructions redundancy is good. In all other writing the opposite is true. Repeating the same phrase over and over can give your reader a signal that says they know what to do next. It makes the instructions seem simpler and the product or process seem less complex. Like bolding, and headlines, repeated phrases help the reader skip text and read fewer words. Repeated statements become short cut queues.

For example no one wants to read “Turn the screw driver clockwise to the right to tighten the screw.” ten times. You may need to write that sentence for unsophisticated readers. If you write it just that way each time then your reader will unconsciously know what to do each time without reading the entire sentence.

Writing instructions does become a little more cumbersome when you aim to be redundant. You have to be sure not to start two different tasks that are often repeated in the same way. You also has to keep up with which sentences are short cut queues and remember to use them consistently through all related instructions.

Writing good instructions is different from writing anything else you may need to write. Following these tips will help your reader be more successful. Your reader will also be much more likely to remember your instructions the next time the task must be done. These handy tricks of the trade work regardless of whether your instructions are printed on paper, sent by email, or included in an online handbook.

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