How to write clear how-to instructions

In Extension, we often are called on to explain tasks ranging from applying correct amounts of fertilizer to preparing roses for winter. With a little effort, we can leave our readers satisfied rather than cursing the instruction writer. Here are some tips.

How many times have you tried to assemble a new tool or toy and become frustrated by the instructions? In Extension, we often are called on to explain tasks ranging from applying correct amounts of fertilizer to preparing roses for winter. With a little effort, we can leave our readers satisfied rather than cursing the instruction writer.

Getting started

  • Before doing anything else, identify the tools needed for the job. It's frustrating to get halfway through a task and then have to stop to search for the pruning shears.
  • Don't assume your reader is an expert. Don't expect homeowners to know what a terminal bud is unless you've told them.
  • Write down the steps while performing the task yourself. Write down exactly what you do—no more, no less. Don't write the instructions from memory. You may forget a step or remember something incorrectly.
  • Include only one instruction in each step. Notice how much easier it is to follow the second version of these instructions:

Confusing example:

Cut a 30-inch sample board and two 1-inch sections from the sample board, and number the two 1-inch sections.

Better example:

1. Cut a 30-inch sample board.

2. Cut two 1-inch sections from the sample board.

3. Number the two 1-inch sections.

Organize instructions

  • Keep sentences short and vocabulary easy.
  • Make sure the steps are in the right order. In the example below, not only are several instructions combined in a single step, but by the time readers are told they should air-dry the samples, they may already have put them in the bag.

Confusing example:

1. Put samples in paper bags for mailing. Do not wash them first. Allow them to air dry before packaging.

Better example:

1. Do not wash the samples.

2. Allow the samples to air dry.

3. When dry, put the samples in paper bags.

Use active, command verbs.

Confusing example:

Sample boards should be end-coated.

Does this mean you should cut samples from boards that are end-coated, or that you should cut sample boards and then end-coat them? Note what happens when you use active verbs:

Better example:

1. Cut a 30-inch sample board.

2. End-coat the sample board.

Use illustrations and diagrams.

illustration of a cranberry plant.

Note how the diagram clarifies the text: Clip just above the berries on fruit-bearing uprights. Clip above the bud break location on non-fruiting uprights to collect only current season tissue.

Make sure you haven't left anything out.

Confusing example:

1. Weigh the sample board.

2. Place the sample board in the drying stack.

  • These instructions neglect telling the reader what to do with the weight. Later, the instructions will say to weigh the board again to monitor the change in moisture. What good will this do if the original weight wasn't recorded properly?

Better example:

1. Weigh the sample board.

2. Record the weight directly on the board with a marker.

3. Place the sample board in the drying stack.

Instructions with calculations

Instructions requiring calculations are some of the most difficult to simplify. We faced this challenge in EC 1455, Selecting and Maintaining Water-efficient Landscape Plants, a publication for the general public in which we wanted to show how to calculate how much water to apply to shrubs.

Here are some tips:

  • If you can replace calculations with a look-up table, do it. In EC 1455, we replaced five calculations with a table that allows readers to estimate the size of their shrubs and quickly look up the amount of water to apply.
  • If you must use calculations, see if you can make them fill-in-the-blank.

For example:

___ gallons (from step 4)

÷ ___ gpm (from step 5)

= ___ minutes to water


Give a completed example of each calculation.

Use the following equation to determine the moisture content of the wood:

weight of wood before drying ÷ oven-dry weight - 1 x 100.

For example, if the wood weighs 84 grams before drying and 60 grams after drying, the equation is:

84 ÷ 60 - 1 x 100 = 40%

Additional suggestions:

  • Use layout to make the instructions less intimidating.
  • Leave an extra space or half-space between paragraphs.
  • Use 11- or 12-point type.
  • Use a two- or three-column layout so the lines are short.
  • Enclose the instructions in a box with plenty of white space both inside and outside the box.
  • Use big, bold, or fanciful type for the step numbers to make the instructions look friendlier.
  • Finally, have somebody who hasn't ever done the task try following the instructions. You may find that what seemed perfectly clear to you confuses someone who doesn't know the subject as well as you do. When I do this, the tester always finds something that can be improved.

Thanks to John Hart, Mike Bauer, and Jim Reeb for supplying examples of how it should be done. For purposes of illustration, some of their perfectly good instructions were edited to make them more confusing.