We’ve all been perplexed by vague instructional content, having to just wing it, at times tossing all the parts back in the box—along with a few choice words.
I once ended up with a cabinet whose doors opened inward instead of outward because I had to guess where the “wing nuts” went. This was, of course, after I had to go online and search what a wing nut looked like.
Another recent example was a lacquer that warned in tiny print at the very bottom of the label: “Be sure to let paint dry overnight before applying this lacquer.” This was, of course, after I had applied the lacquer.
Another tip that gave me a chuckle was the advice that came with the heat visor I bought for my car. I was flipping it over, trying to ascertain which side was to face out. But the only scrap of help I got came on a tiny fortune-cookie-sized chit which read: “Please remove before operating vehicle.”
My favorite, though, was the stroller whose only instructional piece was a warning sticker: “Remove toddler from seat before folding!”
We’ve all been taught as writers to write to the lowest common denominator, but the above is beyond silly, and while entertaining, did not provide the information I really needed.
Where to Start When Writing How-To Copy
Instructions should always start with a Before You Begin section. This enables the assembler to ready himself with tools or venue. He needs to know what he has, what it’s called and what he is to do with it, in task order.
Tell The User What’s in the Box
In this section, proceed to explain each item in the order it will be touched.
For example, if assembling a grill, you might advise the user:
Parts and hardware are labeled with their respective names (example: “Vent”). You should remove these easy-peel stickers from each part as you encounter them. Hardware can be found in the baggies, labeled accordingly as well (example: “Wing Nuts”).
Then, continue to list the contents of the box in the order they will be used by the assembler. This removes a lot of the guesswork and the consumer’s being overwhelmed when dumping out the contents of the box; scratching his head, with no idea of what to touch first.
Now that you’ve set the stage, your confident chef is ready to follow your numbered instructions to assemble the grill. Name the tasks in order and refer to the numbered parts as you go. Be sure to include every detail. It is vital to complete the task yourself, so you have detailed knowledge of what others would need to do. Be as clear and concise as you can.
Provide Tips & Warnings in Large Red Print
Here is where you write to the lowest common denominator. For this particular product, your warnings might include the following:
- Never use gasoline, only charcoal starter.
- Never light your grill without ventilation. This can cause carbon monoxide poisoning and even death.
Then, you can finish your assignment knowing that you have a happy consumer who is wishing he could shake your hand and say, “Thank you!”
Stasey T. is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments. WriterAccess is powered by ideaLaunch.