Not-So-Secret Keys to Writing Useful Instructions

If you want co-workers or clients to be successful at completing tasks that are new or not part of a daily routine, give them documented step-by-step instructions. But before you start writing those steps, make sure you have answered six basic questions — Who, When, Why, and three What’s:

  1. Who are the intended readers for these instructions? Determine, or worst case, estimate how much they know about the process. Are they novices, experts, or somewhere in between? How familiar are they with process-related words, terms, and equipment? Be sure to provide definitions and descriptions when necessary.
  2. When and how often should the procedures be performed? Specify how the reader knows when it’s time to perform the procedures. Note if there are specific times when the procedure shouldn’t be done.
  3. Why are the instructions necessary? Clearly state the desired behavioral goal for your readers. For example: By following these instructions, the reader will build an avian-habitable bird house, or the reader will successfully calibrate a meter.
  4. What conditions must be true in order for the end goal to occur? List all required preparatory checks and prework steps. List the tools, equipment, and/or materials that are needed.
  5. What are the steps in the process? Starting at the beginning, list the steps that must be completed. Then start at the end and construct a flow chart that moves backwards from the end goal to make sure that you haven’t missed any.
  6. What follow-up is necessary? When the procedure is completed, list the tools that must be restored to their original status. Note what items should be checked. Indicate what forms or notification procedures must be completed.