When you need to explain in writing how to do something, a set of step-by-step instructions is your best choice. By enumerating the steps, you make it easy for readers to perform the process in the correct sequence. Your goal is to provide a clear, self-sufficient explanation so that readers can perform the task independently.
- Writing materials (pen and paper, typewriter, computer)
- Background materials (previous memos, policy manuals, manufacturer’s booklets, etc.)
- When necessary, the apparatus being explained (machine, software package, or other equipment)
- Perform the task yourself, or ask experts to demonstrate it or describe it to you in detail.
- Analyze prospective readers’ familiarity with the process so that you can write instructions at their level of understanding.
Make your Instructions Clear
- Include four elements: an introduction, a list of equipment and materials, a description of the steps involved in the process, and a conclusion.
- Explain in the opening why the process is important and how it is related to a larger purpose.
- Divide the process into short, simple steps presented in order of occurrence.
- Present the steps in a numbered list, or if presenting them in paragraph format, use words indicating time or sequence, such as first and then.
- If the process involves more than ten steps, divide them into groups or stages identified with headings.
- Phrase each step as a command (“Do this” instead of “You should do this”); use active verbs; use precise, specific terms (“three weeks” instead of “several weeks”).
- When appropriate, describe how to tell whether a step has been performed correctly and how one step may influence another. Warn readers of possible damage or injury from a mistake in a step, but limit the number of warnings so that readers do not underestimate their importance.
- Include diagrams of complicated devices, and refer to them in appropriate steps.
- Summarize the importance of the process and the expected results.
Test your Instructions
- Review the instructions to be sure they are clear and complete. Also judge whether you have provided too much detail.
- Ask someone else to read the instructions and tell you whether they make sense and are easy to follow.
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