… or should it be “3 Tips for Instruction Writing”?

What I mean is, be careful when you are writing a document explaining how to do something.

3 tips for writing instructions

If you want to avoid additional interactions with people to address the holes in your instructions and clarify the ambiguity, then follow these writing instructions tips to make your content unmistakably definite. 

1. Consider your audience when writing instructions

What you need to do is get out of what you know by heart and consider your audience. You are writing instructions for a person who has never done what you are about to explain. Your audience is a group of novices. Newbies. Rookies. They don’t know! People need things spelled out, no acronyms, no jargon. They can’t rely on muscle memory to go into the unknown. 

Someone once told me to never accept driving directions from a local. The local people have driven the route a million times and can do it in their sleep. Yes, that seems like the right person to ask, but the truth is they gloss over things because they can do it in their sleep! They forget that the Mobil gas station is now a 76 station where they told you to turn right. Some poor guy is still driving looking for that Mobil station. They forgot that there’s now a stop sign where it used to be an uncontrolled intersection (that’s an intersection without traffic lights, stop signs or other signs). Frankly, they know it too well to give reliable directions. 

2. Be overly clear and intentional

You cannot be too clear. It is better to insult their intelligence with ultra-simple information than to lose them by assuming they know what you’re talking about. If you’ve written something with several sections, consider that the reader will ONLY go to the portion that seems applicable to that situation. Do not assume that the reader will start at point one and go through every little detail leading up to point 13—the part that pertains to them. You have to be explicit in each section or tell them to go back and read the necessary sections (ex. see points 1-12). 

By intentional, I mean deliberate. Don’t use wishy-washy terms or leave anything to question. There is nothing that everybody knows. There just isn’t. Common knowledge is not all that common. Neither is common sense, but that’s another blog post. 

If you can’t say it, show it. Diagrams can solve a lot of questions.  #IKEA. 

3. Read it through the newbie’s lens

You have to read it from your audience’s perspective. If you can’t clear your mind of your extensive knowledge, ask someone else to read it. Not just someone who you know always agrees with you. Have the courage to ask the person who LOVES to find your mistakes. There’s always one of those around, it seems. 

Don't assume that anyone knows anything.

Once you send out the information, pay attention to the inquiries you receive, then change that section! Last year, I received a postcard to call about an airbag safety recall on my car. When I called, the agent asked for my name and my vehicle identification number (VIN). Was I supposed to memorize that super long number or keep it handy?

Me: “I could have fetched it prior to calling if the postcard told me to do so.”

Agent: “Yeah, sorry. People say that all the time. Call back when you have it.” 

Points for saying sorry! Demerit to the company for not changing this detail and saving their call center double calls for each postcard. I asked him to please tell his supervisor so hopefully the people who write the postcards can work in concert for the next step. 

If you’ve ever participated in a writer’s workshop where several strangers comment openly about a piece of your writing, you have become (perhaps painfully) aware of how many ways words and phrases are mis/interpreted. Follow the tips above to avoid at least some of those issues. 

Leslie A.M. Smith founded McCormick L.A. in 1994 offering public relations and marketing consulting to nonprofits and small businesses. She recently published Laws of Promotion. The 50-page promotional guide for small businesses and local nonprofits is available now on Amazon.

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