When you’re writing instructions or procedures, remember that your readers are just like you: they hate reading instructions. Mostly they are reading them just before they need to use them. They may be feeling anxious or they may be in a hurry. So you need to write your instructions clearly — and briefly.

Here are six principles to follow:

  • Think about your audience.
  • Introduce the topic.
  • Use direct, bossy language for each step
  • Use numbers where order is important, bullets otherwise.
  • Test before using.
  • Think about your audience

Yes they may be well educated and used to instructions. But, being modern humans, they’re also probably tired, busy, anxious and would prefer to be doing something else.

So you’ll use plain, active English; pictures, diagrams and layout to clarify; helpful headings that summarise the task; and the right kind of dot points.

Give a short, clear introduction.

Most readers will skip the introduction, so keep it short. The idea is to help readers decide whether the instructions will be useful to them.

State plainly what teaching and learning sequence your document describes.

Explain in one paragraph who should read it and how it will help them.

Spell out any important warnings, conditions or equipment needed. You may want to put critical items in a coloured box or highlight them in eye-catching ways.
Use direct, bossy language.

Write each instruction as though the reader had just asked, ‘What should I do next?’ Answer with a command that begins with an active verb:

Don’t write:

Whistle should be blown by teacher.

Do write:

Blow whistle loudly.

Use numbers for commands, bullets for options.

Ask yourself whether your readers will need to read the whole set of instructions or whether they may only need help with part of the task. If they only need help for part, divide the instructions into separate tasks.

If you want your reader to perform tasks in a specific sequence, number the steps. If you want your reader to choose from among a list of options, bullet the options (otherwise the reader won’t know when to stop).

How to teach nine-year-olds to blow raspberries.

I. Get them to sit down.

You will need one (1) whistle.

Blow whistle.
Tell students to sit down.
Repeat if necessary until children sit down.

II. Demonstrate raspberry blowing.

Stick out tongue.
Blow hard till disgusting noise emerges.

III. Explain the value of using this skill

easy way to express derision
anyone can do it
enrages parents
Test before using..

Practise on your family or friends before finalising the instructions. Family pets are probably not useful for this task, but I leave that to your discretion.

Give them a whistle and the instructions.
Ask them to follow the instructions.
Keep quiet and take note of any problems.
Revise your document, and try again with another volunteer.
Repeat until it works