Writing instructions: how much detail do you need?

Paula Shelton | July 27, 2016

Writing instructions is a bit of an art. You’d think it would depend on the difficulty of the task you’re describing. An easy task needs simple instructions, but a complex task needs detailed instructions. Right?

Actually, it depends.

Let’s look at the instructions for my first ever job — as a milk monitor in my first year at school.

Being a milk monitor was easy

Quarter-pint bottles of milk sat in a crate by the window in the sunshine. We drank them through straws at morning break. The milk was warm and tasted funny. I’ve not drunk milk since. Not once.

The milk routine was simple:

  1. Milk monitors pass out the milk and straws.
  2. Children drink milk as fast as possible through the straws.
  3. Milk monitors collect empty bottles and used straws.

But try explaining it to a class of 5-year-olds

What is a monitor? Who is a monitor? How many monitors are there? Do they know what a crate is? Do I need to explain? Is it best for a monitor to carry a bottle in each hand, or one bottle at a time? Or is it best for two or three monitors to carry the whole crate of milk and pass it around the group?

Ah-ha — of course, the milk monitors don’t carry the milk at all! The children in the class form a line by the crate, then the monitors pass one bottle and one straw to each child in the line.

But I’ll need to be more precise than that: one monitor passes one bottle and one straw to the child at the front of the line. The child takes their bottle and straw, says ‘thank you’, and then walks (no running) to sit down at their desk. A new child is now at the front of the line and the monitors repeat the handing out until the line is gone.

Right. Now how do we get the caps off?

Always write for your audience

How much detail is enough and how do you decide? The key is audience. Who are your instructions for? What can your audience reasonably be expected to know? Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and write to be clear for them.

Learn how to write instructions that work for your audience

Our Writing Effective User Manuals and Instructions workshop will teach you how to write instructions that offer quick answers to readers’ questions and help them complete tasks successfully.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.