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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English

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Writing instructions

Introduction

We have all been there sitting in front of a half-assembled piece of kit, looking for part A to put into section B and discovering that the instructions appear to have been written for something else altogether. There is an art to writing clear instructions, and the manufacturers of flat-packed furniture are among the many who have not mastered it.

Yet writing instructions is not just something done by professionals. You might have to write instructions to tell a friend how to reach your house, for a temporary employee who needs to know how things are done at your workplace, or simply a recipe for a friend. In all these cases, the need is the same to have the person you are instructing perform an action, or series of actions, quickly, easily and without complications.

There is a famous example of poor instructions causing major problems. A maintenance worker with poor English was working on an aircraft. He came upon the instruction, 'Extract Part X and examine it carefully. If it shows signs of wear, replace it.' The worker removed the part and examined it. He observed signs of wear and, just as the instructions had told him to do, he replaced it right back in the engine from which he had taken the part. Clear, unambiguous instructions are important.

Why?

Because good instructions are clear, the person writing the instructions needs to be clear about what those instructions are intended to achieve. So start with the objective in mind. You can also start your instructions this way. For example, 'The purpose of these instructions is to tell you how to boil water in a kettle.' (For our purposes something basic is fine however, the principles apply to much more complex topics.)

What?

Instructions are the interaction of three parts - tasks, materials and tools. For example 'Boil (task) the water (material) in a kettle (tool)'. So before you start, make sure that the person following your instructions has all the tools and materials needed for the job. This is why most professionally written instructions begin by saying 'You will need '. No-one likes getting 90% through a task before finding they can't finish it.

For the same reason remember that time is a material. Tell your reader how long it will take to perform the operation not least because finishing much too soon or taking too long can alert the reader that something has gone wrong.

Who?

The writer needs to know who will be reading the instructions. Are the instructions for your teenage child who wants a hot afternoon drink, or for a restaurateur in a five-star establishment? When preparing instructions you need to know both the level of comprehension and the degree of background knowledge that your reader has. (When in doubt, assume none.) Write to that level. Your restaurateur might appreciate the instruction 'To begin, select a 1500 watt aluminium-alloy kettle'. Your teenager would prefer 'Start by taking the kettle out of the cupboard over the microwave.'

How?

Instructions are about actions. So the first thing to do before writing instructions is to break the operation down into stages, and decide what actions are needed to complete each stage. Most people never read the instructions to the end before they begin the actions, so give your instructions in the order they should be performed. For the same reason always put safety and other critical information before the action.

Go step by step, adjusting for your intended audience. For a beginner you might say, 'Locate your kettle. Fill it to the 1-litre mark with clean tap water. Plug the kettle into the mains. Make sure that all electrical connections are dry. Turn the kettle on. Wait for the water to boil. This should take about four minutes.'

(Remember that people often follow instructions in a state of frustrated bewilderment. This is why it is important to never assume anything. Don't just tell someone to plug in the kettle tell them to turn it on as well.)

For someone more experienced, you might only need to say 'Boil a litre of water.'

Techniques

Be graphical. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. If you think your reader will not know what the kettle looks like, a picture of the kettle will save much description and avoid potential disaster. With graphical aids, it is important to be clear what you are showing. Ideally your picture of the kettle should be captioned 'The Kettle' with an arrow pointing to the device. Then the actual kettle should have a matching description written on it.

Be grammatical. Instructions that (for example) omit articles save little space, but are harder to understand. So 'Put the water into the kettle' is much better than 'Add water to kettle.'

Keep it simple. Use short sentences with imperatives. Avoid participles. Do not write, 'After locating your kettle and filling it to the 1-litre mark with clean tap water, make sure it is plugged into the mains.' Write instead, 'Locate your kettle. Fill it to the 1-litre mark with clean tap water. Plug the kettle into the mains.'

Omit irrelevant information. 'Boiling water is dangerous' is essential information, and should be mentioned before the reader begins boiling the water. However, that kettles were first used six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia is interesting but not relevant and should be left out.

Use Bullet Points or numbered steps the above is even better as:
Step 1. Locate your kettle.
Step 2. Fill it to the 1-litre mark with clean tap water.
Step 3. Plug the kettle into the mains (see picture 3).

If there is a picture illustrating a particular step make sure that this is shown both on the instruction and that the number of the instruction is on the graphic. With later instructions, do not use point numbers alone, but give full details. Not 'Perform Step 2 and then Step 3 in that order', but 'Perform Step 2 (Fill the kettle) before Step 3 (plug the kettle into the mains)'.

Be consistent. If you call it 'Step 2' then 'Step 2' it should always be. It should not later become 'Step two', 'Point 2' or 'the second operation'. Likewise, note that in the bullet points the numbered steps are called 'Step 1', 'Step 2' and so on, and are not labelled just '1,2,3'.

Troubleshoot

When you have written the instructions, leave them for a while and then either execute them, or ask someone else to do so and observe what goes wrong. Thus Step 2 (Fill the kettle) might need a troubleshooting instruction attached. 'If the tap water runs down the drain, check that the kettle is beneath the tap.' If you are performing this operation in the USA, note that a 'tap' is a faucet'.

When preparing instructions, remember Murphy's Law. 'If it can go wrong - it will.' Think of everything that might go wrong and write your instructions so that it won't.

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