When you read a set of instructions or a user guide and it doesn't make sense, you might be thinking someone is just writing a step-by-step so how they can screw this up. Well...you can.
When you create a set of instructions or a manual, you can easily overlook how many steps it takes to perform an action. This is especially true if you do something constantly. Whenever you're doing something all the time, you don't really think about the actual steps that go into it. I'm amazed how many things I miss before I get it right whenever I'm documenting something, including things I do all the time.
Whenever you have to write instructions, remember this: There's a lot more steps than you think. But this deceptively easy task isn't hopeless. You can document all the steps if you remember to count all the steps.
Here are some tips I found helpful when doing some good ole technical writing.
Write How You Naturally Do Something
If you're documenting how to do something, especially if it's something you do over and over, then just relax and simply write out the steps involved. This gives you a good starting point when you're writing a set of instructions or a manual. The keyword phrase to remember is "a good starting point."
Stop and Think
Once you've written out the steps, it's easy to move on. Don't! Stop and think. Ask yourself did I document all the steps needed. Forcing a mental pause will determine the difference between a great set of instructions where you actually help people to do something and ones people get frustrated with and toss to the side to try to figure it out for themselves. They're coming to us for help when they read a manual. We have let sloppy instructions go out for far too long. This needs to stop.
Check Your Steps
Once you made a mental pause, it's time to check your steps. To do this, simply go back to the first step and take it from there until you get to the last step. I have found when I go through each step, I end up adding a few more steps or revising ones what I wrote. And, there are even times when I have taken out some unnecessary steps.
Keep going through the steps until you have documented everything. But how will you know when it's done? Well, if you wrote out every step and went through them, you will accomplish what you were intending to do. You should be able to assemble that product, installed that software, or performed that certain action. The point of steps to get the reader to the desired destination.
Pretend You're the Reader
Once you checked your steps, it's time to become the reader. Well...didn't you do that when check you the steps? Yes and No. You may have looked at the individual steps but not the whole picture of the document.
When you become the reader, take it from the top and ask yourself two questions. One, is this right information for me? Two, are these instructions helpful?
Am I (as the reader) a technical professional or a layperson? This helps knowing what kind of steps or information should be in the document.
Even though you should ask yourself who are my readers before you put pen to notepad or keystroke to keyboard to create a document, you need to ask yourself this question again as you're reading to make sure you didn't miss the point of the document. This should be the first question you should ask yourself.
Once you do that, you can ask yourself if these instructions are actually helpful. Are the steps easy to follow? Are they accurate? Does the document easily flow from one topic to another? Are the graphics in the instructions easy to see or they fuzzy or overwhelming? Is the font easy on the eyes? These things play into the fact to ask yourself if these instructions are helpful.
Also, if you can, try reading out the steps and text out loud. When you do this, you'll be surprised at what you catch. If it sounds awkward, you can make whatever changes you need.
If the steps you wrote don't address the right kind of readers or are not helpful, then this document is nowhere close to going out. Make sure you fix this before you publish them.
The world doesn't need another set of unhelpful set of instructions or a hard-to-understand user guide.
Okay, I have done enough talking about this. Now, let me show you a set of instructions on how to do something seemingly simple but actually involves quite bit of steps—Brewing coffee. I didn't realize how many steps were involved until I wrote them. Please check the document below.