The Secret of Successful Instructions

The secret of successful instructions is to have an inexperienced user try to follow them before they are published. As the user follows each step, the wise writer watches for glitches, places where the instructions confuse or mislead the reader. Then the writer makes repairs and has yet another novice user follow the draft instructions again.

I was a typical, rather novice user for a cookbook, Heavenly Delights, which I had the pleasure of proofreading. The cookbook celebrated the 100th anniversary of Cresskill Congregational Church, in Cresskill, New Jersey. The recipes came mostly from church elders, many of them over 80 years old, some of them already deceased. I had known many of the contributors since my childhood visits to New Jersey.

As I read the cookbook, I came across expressions that perplexed me, things that would slow me down if I were actually following the recipes:

"1 dessert spoon of baking soda"
[Is a dessert spoon the same as a teaspoon?]

"1 can crushed pineapple"
[How big a can?]

"As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pour the frosting down the middle and smooth it to the edges, but don’t scrub."
[Scrub?]

30-40 shrimp
[Fresh? Peeled? Deveined?]

"Melt piece of butter (size, small egg) with 2 squares of unsweetened chocolate. When melted, add 1 scant cup of milk. Continue cooking in double boiler until like chocolate pudding."
[How much butter equals a small egg? Should I have started in a double boiler? Yes, of course. But how thick is chocolate pudding?]

"Melt 8 oz. bar of Hershey’s chocolate with 1/3 bar of paraffin over hot water."
[Isn’t that melting chocolate with wax?]

Readers of technical instructions have the same kinds of questions:

  • Which part do I click–the picture or the words?
  • Why does nothing happen when I click Go?
  • Right-click or left-click?
  • Double-click or single-click?
  • What do I do if a box is not applicable but it’s a required field?
  • Which web page am I on now?
  • What will happen if I Go Back?

Get a customer, member, client, user, citizen, retiree, buyer, or flyer to follow a draft of your instructions. If your experience is like that of most writers, you won’t believe the places that throw off readers. You will do another draft and test it, then another, and finally your instructions will be ready.

Enjoy the pursuit of clarity!

Lynn
Syntax Training

2 COMMENTS

  1. Fantastic advice. I will try to make sure to do this–although I write so many directions, and those novice users usually need to learn how to do whatever-it-is right away, that the prospect seems overwhelming. Still, I know that the time invested in getting it right will save time later on.

    Thanks!

  2. Amy, you are right–it is a time-consuming process. If you can’t get novice users to review your instructions quickly, sometimes it helps just to let the instructions rest for a day. When you come back to them, you may find that something you thought was clear was not. I just had that experience when I read through this blog post. Now I want to tweak it to make it completely clear.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Lynn

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