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.

  1. In the introduction explain the purpose of the instructions, and list any tools or equipment that will be needed.
  2. Divide a long list of steps into groups and preview these subgroups at the end of the introduction.
  3. In the body, use headings to signal the group subdivisions.
  4. Within each subdivision, number the steps. Sometimes the numbering system looks like this:
  5. First tell the person what to do and then tell the person 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.
  6. Make sure the steps are in the exact order in which they must be carried out.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Make wise use of white space. Do not clutter the page.