Simplicity is critical when you write instructions for completing a process or gaining insight. This is especially true when your audience has low literacy levels, an impaired ability to concentrate, or both. The goal is to create “easy-to-read” materials without patronizing your audience.
Start from beginner’s mind
What makes writing instructions so hard is the curse of knowledge: “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like to not know it” (Richard Saul Wurman). Test your instructions by giving them to people who are new to your topic.
Make it flow
Readers experience flow as taking a journey that unfolds in a logical way. Each “turn” (new topic in your instructions) is clearly signaled and remembered.
Begin with an introduction that clearly states:
- What your article or book is about
- Who it is written for
- What people will be able to do as a result of following your instructions
Then begin each chapter or section with an “advance organizer.” These are previews of what’s to come—a list of key topics and points that will be covered. Also include periodic reviews of key points and strong transitions between topics.
Flag the key points
Make the main points obvious. Don’t make people hunt for them or guess what they are. Flag those points with:
- Boldface headings
- Bulleted lists
- Numbered lists
- Charts, tables, or diagrams
- White space between major sections
- Photos and illustrations
- Icons that signal exercises and other recurring elements
Break processes into steps
In each step of your process, describe one action for your reader to take. Start sentences with an active verb that tells readers exactly what to do or say.
Reduce cognitive burdens
Use a simple vocabulary—concrete, familiar words. Keep most sentences short with a minimum of internal punctuation. Avoid complex subjects, or ease into them gradually.
Keep it concrete
Effective instructions are practical, realistic, and relevant. They describe visible, physical actions that readers can actually take in daily life to solve problems that actually matter.
Follow every major idea with a concrete example of how to apply it. Also provide lots of stories and structured experiences that let readers test ideas for themselves.
Keep it real
Be careful about quoting experts in support of your ideas. A certain amount of this supports your credibility. But too much can lead readers to distrust your instructions as too academic and removed from “real life.”
Cut the fluff
Many readers will dismiss “motivational writing.” Avoid self-help psychobabble, jargon, and “pep talks” that ramp up enthusiasm in a phony way.
Keep it lean
Good instructions are organized around a handful of ideas that are explained, illustrated, repeated, summarized, and applied.
As you write, keep the main point of each section in mind. Relentlessly purge material that is off-topic. Save it for another section, chapter, blog post, or book.
Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.