Writing Instructions

Dawn Atkinson

Chapter Overview

This chapter aims to help you learn to write instructions, documents that explain in step-by-step fashion how to perform a task (McMurrey, 2017a, para. 3). Instructions exist for any number of things, and in your home life, you may have come across driving directions; seed planting guidelines; assembly, care, and repair directions; first aid procedures; and directions for playing games. Instructions are also produced in the workplace, to help employees, clients, and users complete tasks efficiently, safely, and confidently. This chapter discusses points to keep in mind when writing instructions and provides several example sets of instructions as artefacts for analysis, critique, and guidance.

Before we begin to explore the genre of instructions in depth, think for a moment about instructions you have come across and how easy they were to use. Now, answer the following question: As a reader, what do you want from a set of instructions?

Keep these ideas in mind when writing a set of instructions to ensure your document is clear, complete, concise, correct, and usable.


Planning a Set of Instructions

Before you begin writing a set of instructions, it is crucial to take several planning points into consideration to ensure your document successfully addresses its readers and is straightforward to use. The following paragraphs discuss these planning points in some detail.

What task will the instructions describe?

The purpose for a set of instructions is linked with the task described in the document, so you will need to identify this task when planning. Ultimately, individuals who use the instructions should be able to perform the task safely and without complication. With that idea in mind, do you anticipate readers will skip over important sections of the document to access the steps they need to complete the task? If so, what information can you foreground or signpost so readers see it? Can you group sections of information under headings to make the document easy to navigate? What other approaches can you use to highlight vital information for readers, information that will help them achieve the document’s purpose by completing the task? For instance, consider how bold text, colored text, recognizable icons (visual symbols that signify meanings), and illustrations cue readers’ attention when used purposefully and sparingly.

Who is the audience, and what do those readers need from the document?

As with any piece of technical writing, think carefully about who will use the document—readers, in other words. You will likely be able to envision a target group of readers who will use the document to perform the task it describes; however, you may also anticipate other readers who will be interested in or have a stake in the document’s production and use: employers, workplace supervisors, and legal entities, for instance. Also consider whether you need to state the target audience for the instructions on the document: for example, instructions may be written for children or adults, for individuals required to have licenses or certifications to perform activities listed in the instructions, or for beginners or people more familiar with the task described in the instructions, and you may need to explicitly identify such details on the document.

As you consider the audiences for a set of instructions, also try to anticipate what those individuals need from the document to make it reader friendly and uncomplicated to use. For instance, if you plan to use specialized terms when writing the instructions, will readers know what the language means, or will you need to define it? In addition, how will readers’ backgrounds, ages, or levels of education affect the document’s content and language?

What steps are required to perform the task?

Think carefully about the steps required to complete the operation described in the instructions. Do some of the steps need to be broken into sub-steps or grouped together under subheadings to boost reader understanding or to encourage their completion? Do certain steps need to occur simultaneously for the entire task to be completed successfully?

What items are needed to complete the task?

The items needed for a task might include materials, ingredients, or equipment, and you will need to consider whether specific quantities or types of those items are required. For instance, if you are writing a recipe that calls for corn meal, do you need to specify that it should be white or yellow?

How long will the task take to complete?

Work out how much time is needed for the task described in the instructions. Will the time vary for different groups of users, such as beginners and those with more experience? Will different times be needed for different elements of the instructions? Recipes, for instance, often list times required for both preparation and cooking. Do certain steps in the task require specific amounts of time to complete? Does the task need to be performed at a certain time?

What harm could result from undertaking the task or its steps?

If the instructions task or any of its steps could potentially lead to harm, you have an ethical and legal responsibility to say so in the document, to make this information prominent so it can be easily seen, and to make readers aware of the information before they undertake the activity. McMurrey (2017b, “Guidelines for Specific Types of Notices”) identifies four specific types of notices that can be included in instructions to indicate potential harm.

Note—To emphasize points or remind readers of something, or to indicate minor problems in the outcome of what they are doing.

Warning—To warn readers about the possibility of minor injury to themselves or others.

Caution—To warn readers about possible damage to equipment or data or about potential problems in the outcome of what they are doing.

Danger—To warn readers about the possibility of serious or fatal injury to themselves or others.

Whether the harm might be to safety, health, wellbeing, property, or equipment, you must disclose this information and make an intentional effort to draw readers’ attention to it so that it is immediately identifiable. Foreground the information at the top of the instructions, before the steps begin, and reiterate it as necessary for individual steps that could possibly cause harm. In addition, think of ways to draw readers’ attention to the information, for instance through the judicious use of recognizable icons, bold or colored text, or exclamation points. Unlike other technical and academic writing genres, such as reports, letters, memos, and essays, exclamation marks are acceptable in instructions when used to highlight harm notices. Lastly, never try to bury information about potential harm in small print or at the end of a document since readers will probably overlook it in those situations. Remember that you have an ethical and legal responsibility to clearly and openly alert readers to potential harm when writing instructions.

What visuals might help readers perform the task?

Visuals can be used in various ways in instructions—to illustrate ingredients, supplies, equipment, or steps or to show what a finished product looks like, for example—and in all instances, they should be integrated in a purposeful, logical, and cohesive way to be effective. To integrate visuals in a purposeful way, select ones that are clear, easy to follow, and practical rather than decorative, and incorporate them with the goal of helping readers successfully complete the instructions task. In addition, adhere to the following guidelines to ensure your visuals are integrated into the document in a logical way.

  • Place each visual beside or after the step it illustrates so readers can easily associate the two components.
  • Label each visual: label tables as tables and figures as figures.
  • Number each visual: the first table to appear is Table 1 and the first figure is Figure 1.
  • Compose a specific and informative caption for each visual, one that succinctly describes what the visual portrays.
  • Cite and reference each visual taken or adapted from an outside source.
  • Refer to each visual by its label and number in the text before the visual appears.
  • Explain each visual in the text before it appears.

Also consider sandwiching each visual in between text so it flows into the document in a cohesive way. To do so, explain the visual in the text before it appears, provide the visual, and then comment on the visual. This technique helps to ensure that visuals are never left on their own at the top or bottom of a page without explanation or context.

What might help readers if they encounter difficulties when using the instructions?

Since readers should be at the forefront of your mind when composing instructions, consider how you can help them overcome difficulties when completing the instructions task. Specifically, do you need to include a troubleshooting section that identifies possible issues and how to resolve them? Though you may find it challenging to pinpoint reader difficulties on your own, a usability test can help in this regard. Usability, in this case, refers to how straightforward a piece of communication is to use in relationship to the task it describes or its readers’ goals, although usability can also be tested on products. Usability is an important consideration for persons, companies, governmental agencies, and non-profit organizations that wish to produce documents that are functionally sound, easy to navigate, approachable in terms of design, accessible to all readers, and centered around readers’ needs. Ultimately, usability tests can lead to increased user productivity and satisfaction and, consequently, to enhanced reputation for the entity that produced the document.

While usability tests can be conducted in various ways, here are two approaches that you may decide to implement when developing instructions. Ask another person (ideally, several people) to work through the instructions document to perform the task described therein while you are present. The person you select should be among the target readership you have identified for the document. Observe the user during the exercise, and make notes on content or steps the user has difficulty with. For instance, if the user takes an unanticipated amount of time to complete a certain step, this observation can indicate a usability issue with the document and should be noted down. Afterwards, interview the user about his or her experiences with the document. You might use the following questions as a starting point for the interview.

  • What did you think of the document as a whole?
  • What did you think of the document’s title and headings?
  • How noticeable was the information about potential harm?
  • What parts of the document were easy to follow?
    • What made them so?
    • What could be done to make these parts even more straightforward?
  • What parts of the document were hard to follow?
    • What made them so?
    • What could be done to improve these parts?
  • What did you think of the visual(s) used in the document?

After the observation and interview sessions are finished, use the data you collected to revise your instructions for the benefit of readers.


Organizing a Set of Instructions

To be readily usable, a set of instructions must be well organized. To achieve this goal, plan to develop a specific and informative title and introduction, body, and conclusion sections for the document.

Writing the title and introduction section

The title for a set of instructions should identify the task described in the instructions and be clear and concise. Indeed, readers should recognize what the document is about just by reading its title: for example, you likely know what to expect when reading the title “How to Format a Memo.”  Place the immediately recognizable title before the introduction when writing instructions.

The introduction section should provide enough contextual information so that readers know what task the set of instructions describes, the meanings of key terms used in the document, if the task needs to be performed under certain conditions, the intended audience for the document, the time needed for the task, and whether any harm could result from undertaking the activity or any of its steps. These items are listed in no particular order, and you may be able to combine some of them in your introduction to keep it concise.

The introduction should also list all materials, equipment, or ingredients needed so that users can assemble these items before beginning the task described in the instructions. Consider using a bullet point list to facilitate easy reading; bullet points do not indicate sequential order or order of importance, so they are generally appropriate for a list of supplies. Finally, when compiling the list, be exact about the types and amounts of items needed.

Writing the body section

The body section of the document needs to clearly explain how to accomplish the task described in the instructions. To this end, consider numbering the steps of operation required for the task, and list just one operation per step to help readers follow along. If certain steps require sub-steps to complete, letter the sub-steps to indicate a sequential order or bullet them if they do not specify a sequential order, and place them underneath the main steps. As with any list, sub-divide only as needed: present at least two sub-steps underneath a main step to justify the division. Use complete sentences—that include the article words a, an, and the—and the active voice for the steps and sub-steps so the procedures are easy to understand; to maintain the active voice and parallel structure in the list, give readers polite commands by beginning each step with a present tense verb (e.g., “Press the red button three times”). If readers need specific details about duration, measurements, or distances to complete steps, then include that information. Lastly, write for target readers by using language and terms they can readily understand.

Writing the conclusion section

The conclusion section should tell readers what to expect once they have completed the task described in the instructions. Recipes, for example, frequently include photos of finished dishes, while seed packets often say when gardeners can expect to see plant growth or blooms. If you anticipate readers will need additional information to complete the task confidently, you might include a troubleshooting or tips section in the conclusion.


Analyzing and Critiquing Instructions

Look carefully at the instructions in Figure 1, which describe an exercise regimen designed to help elderly people avoid falls (STEADI, 2017). Afterwards, answer the questions listed. Be prepared to discuss your answers in class.

  • How does Figure 1 follow the guidelines discussed in this chapter?
  • How does Figure 1 diverge from the guidelines discussed in this chapter?
  • What are the positive and negative features of the instructions in Figure 1?
  • How could the instructions in Figure 1 be improved?

Figure 1.  Instructions for an exercise routine intended to help the elderly avoid falls

Now read through the instructions in Figure 2 (Bennett, 2018), which explain how to adjust to wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, a device designed to improve breathing function by keeping a person’s airway open. Afterwards, answer the questions listed. Be prepared to discuss your answers in class.

  • How does Figure 2 follow the guidelines discussed in this chapter?
  • How does Figure 2 diverge from the guidelines discussed in this chapter?
  • What are the positive and negative features of the instructions in Figure 2?
  • How could the instructions in Figure 2 be improved?
  • How does Figure 2 compare with Figure 1?

Figure 2. Instructions for acclimating to the use of a CPAP machine

What can you take away from this activity that may help you when writing a set of instructions?


Designing a Set of Instructions

Beyond the formatting considerations already discussed in this chapter, also take into account the visual design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity, identified by author and visual designer Robin Williams (2015, p. 13), when developing a set of instructions to help maximize the document’s visual appeal and usability.

Contrast—Content that is different in function or importance is also visually different.

Repetition—Design elements are repeated to establish consistency.

Alignment—Similar items are lined up with one other.

Proximity—Related elements are placed near one another.

Design that integrates these principles prioritizes reader perception and document functionality.

The instructions in Figure 3 (Public Health Preparedness and Response, 2016) combine text and visual content to explain how to prepare a home for a coming hurricane. Review the document, and answer the following question about it: How does the figure employ contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity? Be prepared to discuss your ideas in class.

Figure 3. Instructions that describe how to prepare a home for an approaching hurricane

Having looked at Figure 3 carefully, answer the following question about the instructions: What suggestions might improve the document’s design and functionality? Be prepared to discuss your response in class.

Now review Figure 4 (Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, University of Toronto Mississauga, n.d., p. 5), time management instructions that combine text and visual content. How does the figure employ contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity? How does Figure 4 compare with Figure 3? Be prepared to discuss your ideas in class.

Figure 4. Instructions for managing study time effectively

What suggestions might improve Figure 4’s design and functionality? Be prepared to discuss your response in class.

What can you take away from this activity that may help you when writing a set of instructions?


Chapter Wrap-Up

Like any technical document, effective instructions require thoughtful planning, organization, and design, as this chapter explains. These efforts, in turn, have the potential to bring about positive outcomes since instructions can help readers complete tasks efficiently, confidently, and safely when they are developed with care.


Activity A: Thinking about Word Use in Instructions

Unlike some other technical writing genres, such as formal reports, the word you is acceptable in instructions. Why is this so? Answer this question, and be prepared to discuss your response in class.


Activity B: Finding and Critiquing a Set of Instructions with a Harm Notice

Locate a set of instructions that includes one or more notices about potential harm, either to safety, health, well-being, property, equipment, or a combination of these, and answer the following questions about the document.

  • How clear was the notice about possible harm?
  • How easy was the notice to detect?
  • What, if anything, might help readers to better distinguish the notice from the rest of the instructions so it is instantly recognizable?
  • What can you take away from this activity that might help you when writing a set of instructions?

Be prepared to discuss your answers in class.


Activity C: Creating a Checklist to Use When Writing and Revising Instructions

Using the information presented in this chapter and what you learned from activities A and B, create a checklist to use when writing and revising instructions. Be prepared to discuss your checklist items in class.

Homework: Composing a Set of Instructions

Prepare a set of clear, concise instructions that describe a task with which you are familiar; select a task from your personal or professional life that can be completed in five to 10 steps. The instructions should be no more than two pages in length and include at least one visual. Although you can incorporate digital photos you have taken into the document without acknowledging their source, you must cite and reference any outside material—including visuals—you use in the instructions. Unless you are told otherwise, employ block style when designing the document to maximize space: single space the document, left align its text, and insert one blank line in between paragraphs.

Remember to call upon this chapter for guidance when producing your assignment.

  • Use the subheading questions in “Planning a Set of Instructions” to formulate ideas when starting the instructions assignment.
  • Use the checklist you developed in Activity C to write and revise the instructions.
  • Use the McNamee (2019) handout  when deciding which articles (a, an, or the) to insert into your instructions document.
  • Use the information in “What Might Help Readers if They Encounter Difficulties When Using the Instructions?” to usability test your document.



Bennett, K. (2018). Getting used to your (C)PAP machine (short). Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan.  License: CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0. http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/SleepDisorders/GettingUsedToCPAPShort.pdf

McMurrey, D. (2017a). Instructions: Tell them how to do it! License: CC-BY 4.0.   https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/instrux.html

McMurrey, D. (2017b). Special notices: Keep readers safe, productive, and well-informed. License: CC-BY 4.0.   https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/notices.html

McNamee, K. (2019). Articles. Colorado School of Mines Writing Center. License: CC-BY-NC 4.0. https://www.mines.edu/otcc/wp-content/uploads/sites/303/2019/12/otccarticlelesson.pdf

Public Health Preparedness and Response. (2016). Be ready! Hurricanes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. License: CC-PD. https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/infographics/00_docs/beready_hurricanes.pdf

Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, University of Toronto Mississauga. (n.d.). 6 essential skills for your academic career at UTM.  License: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. https://www.utm.utoronto.ca/asc/sites/files/asc/public/shared/pdf/study_skills/SkillsBooklet__6Skills_Web_v1.pdf

STEADI: Stopping Elderly Accidents, Deaths & Injuries. (2017). Chair rise exercise. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. License: CC-PD. https://www.cdc.gov/steadi/pdf/STEADI-Brochure-ChairRiseEx-508.pdf

Williams, R. (2015). The non-designers design book (4th ed.). Peachpit Press.


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