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by Patricia Fry

How to Write the How-To

By Patricia Fry

Do you find it difficult to write a straight how-to or informational piece? Does your writing have a literary quality or an academic tone that doesn’t easily translate into an instructional article? Do you occasionally write nonfiction for publication only to have it rejected?

If you need help transitioning from story writing to writing that teaches or instructs, for example, here are some tips for you to consider:

  1. Rather than writing the how-to or instructional piece from scratch, create an outline. Keep it simple. Start by listing the steps you want to cover or the points you wish to make.

  2. Organize the steps or points logically. If you’re writing about how to tie a shoe lace, you wouldn’t start with the bow. You might first discuss types of tie-shoes and shoe laces, explain how to lace up a shoe, making the first tie and then working on the bow.

  3. Write out how to approach and carry out the steps. Perform (or watch someone else perform) the steps and describe how each aspect is handled. As an example, if you’re teaching the process of planting a flower, explain how to determine where to plant it. Describe how to dig a hole and what sort of tool to use. Reveal the steps to removing the plant from the original pot and so forth. Don’t necessarily rely on your sense of recall. It’s common for the details we need to report to be absent from our memories.

  4. Weave the instructions together with connecting words and other useful narrative. In order to make an otherwise mundane and rigid article or booklet more interesting, you’ll want to offer some examples, anecdotes and other useful tidbits. For example, in the flower-planting scenario, give some suggestions regarding how to choose the right plant for the spot. Offer some tips for creating better drainage for the plant.

  5. Consider any questions that might come out and make sure that you respond to them within your article or instructional booklet. Will the reader want to know what to look for in a healthy plant, for example, or what time of day is best for planting? Those reading your piece on how to tie a shoe might question the length of shoe laces to buy for the number of eyelets in the shoe.

  6. Refine and edit your work. Pretend that you are someone from Mars seeing instructions for making popcorn, tying a shoe or planting a flower for the first time. Make sure that you’ve written your material so that even this alien will understand and can follow the entire process.

  7. Use bullets or numbering to separate the steps or points, as I have in this article. You can see how much easier it is to read or scan and follow.

  8. Include graphs, illustrations or photographs for additional clarity.

Writing a how-to or instructional piece is not exactly a science, but it does require someone who can visualize the process he is writing about, organize it in his mind and write simple instructions that anyone can understand and follow. You can learn to do this through study and practice. It might also help to read instructional articles. Discover which ones resonate with you and notice how they are structured. Consider following this style for your instructional or how-to piece.


Patricia Fry is the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network) and the author of 35 books. See her most recent books in the left column of this page.

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