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How to write a how-to post

Friday, March 22, 2013 @ 09:03 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

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.

3787189858_687b74f217How to, not how well

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.

Thumbs up

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.

Thumbs down

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
  • Boring

Five 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Use numbered steps dished out in chronological order.
  3. Explain each step separately, clearly explaining and deleting any unnecessary or unhelpful wording, but repeating any vital points as needed.
  4. Add simple illustrations, screen shots or videos to help readers see what to do or check that they are correctly following your instructions.
  5. 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?

Thanks for the photo. 

19 Responses to “How to write a how-to post”

  1. Glenn seddon says:

    Hey thanks for checking out my site and shouting out to it in your article. Nice wrap up of Darren’s challenge. Have fun playing some jazz if you end up giving it a go. I like your site too. Ill give a shout out to your site in my social media. Catch ya. Glenn.

  2. Barbsawyers says:

    I keep saying I’m going to start to play again. As soon as I get more time, I’ll be back at your site. A lot more fun than my old piano teacher yelling.

  3. Tam says:

    Thanks for your lovely words about my post! It was difficult to read all the posts, well done to you!

    Your tips are excellent – off to explore your site a bit further.

    And never say never – roller derby is fun 😉

  4. Barbsawyers says:

    Anyone who can make me interested in something I’m not interested in has a wonderful knack.

  5. Caroline J says:

    Hello Barb – wasn’t this a great idea that Darren had? I enjoyed reading your post and was delighted when I saw that you had mentioned my post. I’m glad you found it useful – Caroline

  6. Barbsawyers says:

    Yes, the group activity was fun. Yours was a terrific example of a how-to post. Just wish I’d had more time to salute more participants.

  7. Johanna says:

    I wish I’d read your post before I attempted the Problogger challenge becaue there are a few obvious mistakes I’ve made, and I think you may have shaken your head in despair. This is an awesome post to refer back to next time. Thank you Barb.

  8. 84 Must Read ‘How to’ Blog Posts (and 3 Winners Announced) | Johns Books and Hobbies says:

    […] How to write a how-to post […]

  9. 84 Must Read ‘How to’ Blog Posts (and 3 Winners Announced) | Shane Bentley Computer Repairs says:

    […] How to write a how-to post […]

  10. It really great, I’ve found that simple stories usually contain the most potent messages. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Sarah Arrow says:

    Thanks for the mention Barb, sorry it took this long for me to discover it :(. I have your book by the way, I bought it after reading your post.

    As for traffic I didn’t get any but in truth I didn’t expect any, I did however go and comment on a whole heap of other people’s posts, and some returned the compliment. I bet I’ve spelt that wrong…

  12. Barbsawyers says:

    Thanks Sarah. I enjoyed your post too. Must make more time for this kind of thing in 2014.

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