How to Write (Better): 12 Steps for Writing a How-To Article
By Elan Morgan on August 30, 2010
BlogHer Original Post
Writing a good how-to article is harder than most people think. I know this, because most of the how-to articles I come across on the internet are down-right terrible. They often assume a level of expertise that the reader does not possess or neglect to mention entire steps that would get the reader from step three to step four without causing them to rip out handfuls of hair. My how-tos, though, are quite fantastic, and I am here to tell you how to do it, so that when you decide to share your knowledge with the world, you can do it better than everyone else.
That's right. This is a how-to article about how to write a how-to. It's so meta that it's like looking into one of those three-way mirrors where you can see an infinite number of reflections of yourself, except this is much more useful and distilled down from infinity into 12 helpful steps:
1. Pick a topic that you actually have an interest in and know quite a bit about.
The quality of your how-to begins here. If you are bored and uninterested, your how-to is likely going to be a lackluster and error-ridden affair.
2. Give your how-to a clear, descriptive title.
You could call your how-to "I Know How to Do Something, So Let Me Show You It", but if you want people to understand what your article is about, know if it will be useful to them, and be able to find it using a search on Google, you will want to use keywords specific to the how-to like I did for this article, for example: "12 Steps to Writing a Better How-To Article".
3. Write an introductory overview.
Start the how-to with an introductory paragraph or two that explains why you are writing the how-to, what the how-to is about, and who it is geared toward. If you take a look at the beginning of this article, for instance, you will see that I am writing this to help put an end to bad how-tos, it is about how to write a better how-to, and it is geared toward the how-to writer. Bases? Covered.
4. Add a list of supplies and prerequisites, if needed.
If your how-to is about how to bake a cake, it only makes sense to include a list of the necessary ingredients and the tools needed. If you are writing a how-to about how to photoshop your head onto the body of Mariah Carey, make sure to mention which version of Photoshop you are using. This way your readers won't find themselves halfway through the how-to before they find out that they don't have what they need to continue.
Also, if your how-to relies on the reader having a certain level of prior knowledge, direct them to a previous article or how-to that will bring them up to speed and keep them from becoming frustrated with your instructions.
5. Scanability is key to a functional how-to.
When a reader reads a how-to, they look away frequently as they follow the instructions. This makes it important to create an easily scanable document to help them keep track of where they are:
- Organize the steps into a numbered list.
- Each step should include only one activity to avoid confusing the reader.
- Leave a blank line between steps. Whitespace between steps makes it easier for a reader's eyes to keep their place on the page.
- Use shorter paragraphs. This is a good rule to follow in general when writing on the internet. Readers' eyes have a difficult time tracking through long blocks of text.
6. Keep the language simple and to the point.
You could write "Each step should be about only one activity, because people can concentrate on your how-to only so much when they are also trying to do what you are saying, and I totally get that, because my brain wanders all over the place all the time."
Don't write that in a how-to if you want to be clear and easy to follow. Instead, just say "Each step should include only one activity to avoid confusing the reader."
7. Remember to write from the perspective of someone who has never done what you are describing.
You have probably done the activity described in the how-to one hundred times, but the person following along has likely never done it before. If you forget to mention to hit the save button or to leave the dough to set for one hour, your how-to will only result in failure and frustration for your reader.
Make sure to mention each and every action required from start to finish, even if you think they could be inferred by the reader. What is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to everyone.
8. All the steps in a series of actions require description.
Most reviews are written by people who are very familiar with the series of actions they are describing, and so they will often assume that some steps are obvious enough that they do not need description. For instance, I don't know what it means to "let dough set." I'd probably let it sit like I was supposed to, but I wouldn't know why, which is why a description would both be helpful and edifying.
9. Use photographs, screenshots, and/or drawings as visual aids.
Following a how-to without pictures can sometimes be like learning how to paint while blindfolded. If you ignore all the failings in the following how-to I wrote three years ago, you will notice how important the screenshots are to understanding the steps to create a lomo-esque photograph using Photoshop: How To Create An Effect Not Entirely Unlike A Lomo Camera With Adobe Photoshop CS2.
Pictures can be invaluable to your readers when it comes to executing the steps in your how-to.
10. Research other how-to articles about your topic.
Researching other how-tos on the same subject will help you to make sure that you have covered all the necessary material, and it will also help you to sidestep errors that others have made in writing theirs.
11. End the how-to with a summary paragraph of what the reader has just learned and that invites comments and suggestions with regard to the helpfulness of your how-to.
This is a tidy way to wrap things up and lets your readers know that their experience matters to you. It also invites them to give you constructive feedback about your article.
12. When you are done writing your how-to, follow it to the letter to ferret out what you may have missed or stated incorrectly.
You will probably be surprised at the simple yet necessary steps you left out. How-tos are editing intensive, but it's careful editing for accuracy and errors that will set your how-to apart from the sea of mediocre to terrible how-tos adrift on the internet these days.
And those, my friends, are 12 steps to writing a better how-to article. Now that you are well equipped, go commit acts of good Internet citizenry and tell your peers how to do stuff more thoughtfully, concisely, and thoroughly than other people are telling them how to do stuff. Your readers will thank you.
Are there any other ways to turn bad how-tos into good how-tos?