Get results and respect by leveraging the best of talking and thinking
Apply talking, your first and favorite way to communicate, to all the writing you do at work. Even better, add the planning and other thinking that comes with writing. Learn how in this fun book.
Sign Up for Our Blog
How to write a how-to post
I’m cross-eyed from reading how-to posts, part of a group writing project inspired by Darren Rowse of ProBlogger this week. I know the deadline isn’t until midnight Friday in Melbourne, Australia, or 6.00 a.m. Friday here in Toronto, Canada. But I can’t take it anymore.
Darren encouraged us to read and comment on each other’s posts. At first, I did, but then I realized that the sheer volume of submissions, plus client work, would make that impossible. I did at least scan, sometimes commented on or shared, each post I saw before 4.00 p.m. yesterday.
My post did not lead to a surge in traffic, as my guest posts on Problogger have, so I’m know I’m not the only slacker.
When I evaluated posts, I distinguished between a how-to posts, with specific steps and achievable outcomes, from ones that offer general advice or motivational hype.
For example, a how-to post would explain how to hook up a dishwasher, an advice post would tell you what to look for when you’re shopping for a dishwasher and a motivational post would applaud the freedom from hand-washing.
Although posts can combine elements of all three, I focused on the posts that leaned towards the how-to style.
In my 30-year career, I must have drafted a million how-to articles. So I thought I knew almost everything.
But by appreciating the many excellent submissions, I learned a thing or three. So let me summarize what I like about my favorites.
Most of my picks involve activities I’m interested in. Like many other Problogger readers, I’m wanted to learn more about how to score big with Reddit, use list.ly and crop photos for Google + . They were all clearly written, with steps in chronological order and helpful graphics.
I also enjoyed the video on playing jazz piano. Even though I don’t really play, it was so clearly shot and explained, I might try.
Then there was roller derby, a sport I’d never dream of trying. But Tam’s introductory anecdote was so compelling I kept reading. Nice.
I’m not going to call out the specific posts that didn’t work for me. But here’s a list of my general criticisms:
- Too chatty
- Not chatty enough
- Too long
- Too short
- Too much time on the problem, rather than the solution, which is the point of a how-to post
- Critical information not provided in the correct order; don’t wait till the end to tell me something I needed to know at the beginning
- Acronyms to organize information, more appropriate for advice posts
- Failure to summarize and repeat the main steps
In addition to following the good examples and avoiding the bad, here are my five steps, from my book and uLearn series Write Like You Talk Only Better, for explaining how to do pretty much anything:
- Start with anything the reader needs to do or have in advance. For example, recipes first list the ingredients, the oven preheat temperature and any special equipment.
- Use numbered steps dished out in chronological order.
- Explain each step separately, clearly explaining and deleting any unnecessary or unhelpful wording, but repeating any vital points as needed.
- Add simple illustrations, screen shots or videos to help readers see what to do or check that they are correctly following your instructions.
- Remember that your readers may refer back. So make them easy to review, with subheads, diagrams, indexes or helpful signs and reminders.
Before you hit publish, take off your expert heels and put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows next to nothing about your topic. Are they still awake? Have you missed anything?
What have I missed?