Three tips for writing instructions

One of the most frequent — and dreaded — writing tasks is writing instructions. Recipes, care requirements, and work procedures all need clear instructions. We’ve got three tips to help you create instructions that work, and to keep them working over the long term.

Image, Main control panel for Apollo spaceship.

Let’s hope someone wrote some nice clear instructions for this. Image by NASA

1. Write in plain English

Plain English uses clear, easy-to-understand language. When you write in plain English, you seek to avoid jargon and technobabble. The catch is that some people set plain English aside when it’s time to write instructions that involve specialised or technical terms.

You can still use the technical terms you need while writing in plain English. The key is using the terms that you truly need. Avoid unnecessarily complicated words and too many acronyms. Keeping your sentences and lists short and clear frames your technical terms so users can understand them in context.

2. Test your instructions

Testing your instructions with your audience ensures that your final work will meet your audience’s needs. This is especially important for new processes and products. Take some time to watch and listen while some of your users work through your instructions. You’ll see what they skip and what they need to know more about.

Who can you recruit as testers? New hires within your company and customers who use your product can be excellent testers. They each have reasons to genuinely engage with your instructions and to give you honest feedback.

The most frequent thing preventing user testing is the feeling that there isn’t enough time. One way to reduce the time needed is to focus on testing the instructions for your most important steps.

3. Plan for the long term

Instructions are alive — and sooner or later, you’ll need to update them. To support this, be sure to:

It’s also useful to stay in touch with your audience and your subject matter experts. The more you’re in the loop about changes and new developments, the easier it is to update instructions when they need it.

Learn more

Writing Effective User Manuals and Instructions is a workshop that gives you all the tools and confidence you need to write instructions that readers can understand.

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