Writing instructions that guide people to change their behavior is a specific genre with its own set of best practices. If you want to create books, courses, and other materials that actually work for people, then it’s essential to follow evidence-based guidelines.
Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a single source with a comprehensive treatment of those guidelines. This post is my ongoing attempt to fill this gap. Following are links to articles with relevant suggestions. I’ll expand and update this list as I find more resources.
Process learning is what usually comes to mind when we think about “teaching” someone to do something. Process learning helps people understand how to complete a task or take a series of actions through traditional elements of instruction:
- State a rule or principle.
- Give an example of how to apply the rule or principle (and sometimes a non-example as well).
- Ask the reader to apply the rule and get immediate feedback.
Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me). Stories about people who apply and benefit from your instructions are especially useful for the “why” dimension.
The trick is to write stories that “ring true” with readers while avoiding flat and generic anecdotes that are little more than lectures. This post offers suggestions.
You can also promote insight with exercises, or structured experiences. Here is a list of examples with guidelines for creating each one.
What makes writing instructions so hard is the curse of knowledge. As Richard Saul Wurman reminds us in Information Anxiety, “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like to not know it.”
Many of the instructions I see in self-help books presume too much knowledge and skill on the part of readers. This post offers ways to create instructions that don’t fly above the heads of your audience members.
This post is a grand summary of the above articles, designed as a point-by-point guide to editing your work.
New Harbinger publishes clear, compassionate, evidence-based materials that represent the best of the self-help genre. Its publishing guidelines are a gold mine of step-by-step instructions for writing a book. Especially useful are the suggestions for outlining (creating a table of contents) and presenting a process:
To effectively teach an individual step of a skill, follow this sequence: state the rule or instruction first. Be clear and to the point. Then, give an example of how someone else did this step. Lastly, provide the exercise for the reader to perform. This gives the reader three ways to learn the skill: intellectually by precept, emotionally through modeling, and experientially through action.