How to Write Instructions
Instructions are written directly to the reader in second
person, imperative mood. That means that instructions are
a set of commands, something like "Turn the machine on
by pressing the Power Switch located in the lower right-hand
corner." Notice that this imperative mood sentence has
the implied subject of "you."
Although this quality of instructions is the one we most
often think of, there are several things you can do to
make a set of instructions usable.
- In the introduction explain the purpose of the instructions,
and list any tools or equipment that will be needed.
- Divide a long list of steps into groups and preview these
subgroups at the end of the introduction.
- In the body, use headings to signal the group subdivisions.
- Within each subdivision, number the steps. Sometimes the
numbering system looks like this:
- 1.0 First Subgroup
- 1.1 Step one in group one
- 1.2 Step two in goup one
- 1.2.1 First substep in step two of
- 1.2.2 Second substep . . .
- 1.3 Step three in
- 2.0 Second Subgroup (etc.)
- First tell the person what to do and then tell the
HOW to do it. If needed, you might even tell the
reader why the step needs to be done this way. Go through the process
step by step taking nothing for granted.
- Make sure the steps are in the exact order in which they must
be carried out.
- If there is a possibility of injury, put the word DANGER before
the step in which the danger exists and then explain what the danger
is before giving the step.
- If there is the possibility of doing damage to equipment or to
the whole process, put the word WARNING before the step in
which this possibility exists. Explain the potential problem before
giving directions for the step.
- Supplement verbal instructions with simple, focused
figures that show how to do things, but do not rely on the
visuals to carry the full message. Visuals should be as close to the
verbal directions as possible.
- Make wise use of white space. Do not clutter the page.