Tips for Writing Instructions and Procedures: 7 Things

Why 7 Things?

Readers bring their expectations to what they read: they often have firm ideas of what they will find in a traditional news article or an opinion piece versus a script, or a graphic novel, a web blog, instructions, a haiku, or a thriller. Writers (and editors) dance with those expectations—meeting them, exceeding them, and resisting them (sometimes at their peril). For those reasons and many more, writers and editors both can benefit from reviewing the basics of any given type of writing before getting down to work.

Creating and using a basic list does NOT mean that the writer will be shackled to a formula or churn out cookie-cutter prose. And it doesn’t mean that the editor will impose a template, red-marking any variation. Looking at writing types and forms in terms of characteristics and common questions can be a way for writers to kick start creativity. It can help editors to ask good questions and support writers in reaching the writer’s goals. And it puts the focus on the reader.

With the above in mind, here starts a semi-regular series of basic lists. Each will be about one form based on my experience. Each will look at only 7 things so will not attempt to be exhaustive. However, a list of 7 gets the ball rolling—helping writers and editors think about typical characteristics and questions to ask. (Why 7? A popular idea is that people can only remember 7 things at a time—or 7 plus or minus 2, so 5 to 9. However, there is some dispute about the number. See this What Makes them Click blog entry. Just the same, we’ll go with 7.)

7 Things About Instructions and Procedures

  1. steps in sequence—usually, with numerals for main steps (not letters, not bullets)
  2. listing of what is needed beforehand—for example, a materials and equipment list (often with bullets, not numbers; sometimes with materials and equipment separated into 2 lists)
  3. cautionary notes—Are there any warnings that should be given? Are they given before the danger?
  4. consistency—Is there consistency in how things are expressed? Is the consistency logical? (For example, in Canada, many people use inches or centimetres equally well to measure length but imperial measurements only in the kitchen. So Cut homemade pasta to lengths of 10 inches or about 25 cm… Make 1 cup of sauce per serving. It seems inconsistent but is logical for a Canadian readership.)
  5. title and introduction—Is a clear, functional title applied? Would a 1-2 sentence introduction help to orient the reader to the task?
  6. options—Are options and variations noted? Are they necessary? Are they clearly identified and appearing where is logical?
  7. feasible—Most important, can the steps be followed to do what is intended? In other words, is the task possible and can the instructions be followed easily to do that task (dance the salsa, make a tree fort, download an application, over-ride support system ABC, etc.)? Are they workable for the intended readership—for example, seasoned cooks or newbies?

If you have questions, comments, or ideas for more entries for basic lists, please let me know by contacting me.

© Laura Edlund 2010