There are many things people cannot just do. I can’t juggle with flaming torches without burning holes in the carpet, but, who knows, maybe I could learn to do so. I would have to practice, but first I would need to find out how to do it. It is difficult to do something if you don’t know what it is you should be doing. This brings us to my subject for today: how to write how-to-do-it articles.
The potential is enormous. A wealth of publications and websites – including this one, of course – publish material which might be called ‘instruction’. If you have experience and expertise in something other people might want to do (and think about it, you may have more than you think – including things routine to you), why not tell them how to do it?
Doing it well needs planning. It needs clear structure. It needs complete clarity. There is no room for saying: ‘you sort of attach the thingy to the whatsit and, oh by the way, before that you should…’. It needs a clear focus and sequence.
How do you start?
Well, not with a ‘first you do this…’ approach. The first job is to set the scene and make readers feel comfortable; hence the flaming torches above. Your first intention should be to make yourself appear a good source of advice and get people thinking ‘this may help’. The first words need to make what’s coming seem likely to be interesting. In particular, your how-to article needs to be manageable and useful as a guide.
Focus on what readers need to know
But before you write anything you must decide about what to write. It’s impossible to be comprehensive. I cannot mention everything here that could be said about my subject. I must accept that and focus on the key issues. This has implications for preparation (see Start your article, below). It is worth noting possible content first. Then, select what to include and not include, as well as how much to say about differing aspects of your topic. This approach suits much non-fiction writing as it helps separate the job of deciding what to write from that of deciding how to put it. Maybe I am a bear of very little brain, but I find this allows you to concentrate on how to put matters, with a clear content list already decided.
What will your readers know?
You, presumably, know a lot about whatever you are writing about. Your readers may know less. You must not blind them with science and you must make things – even complicated things – understandable and manageable. If people say ‘I’m not sure what this means,’ you have failed.
Let’s imagine that you are going to teach someone to drive. You sit them down in the driving seat and ask them to disengage the clutch and they, perhaps never having been in a car before, say ‘What’s the clutch?’ That’s what I mean by context. You have to be sure you are starting far enough back, and that wherever you start is appropriate to your readers.
Here’s another example. If you want to tell someone how to tie a bow tie, it is going to be difficult, if not impossible. You will need diagrams. You can show someone what to do, but telling them is likely to confuse. Assess what is going to work. In choosing a topic make sure you are picking something that you can make work. If you write something that confuses the reader, the editor will never ask you to write again.
Be clear in your descriptions
You may have a good deal to explain so you must be succinct. Write tight. Couple this with language that is jargon-free and memorable and people will follow you – and enjoy doing so. Ambiguity kills explanation stone dead. It not only fails to explain, but it also removes any credibility that you can explain things clearly.
We all hate impenetrable computer manuals. Remember that, because people love it when what they expect to be complicated proves manageable. Jargon-free style works wonders. Convoluted sentences make it difficult for people to understand you. If you do not write clearly and precisely it will confuse people.
For example, I once saw a guide to conducting meetings which touched on room layout (conference style, boardroom etc.). It referred to an open U-shape, which is pretty easy to imagine – a U of tables open at one end so that the person conducting the meeting can go into the U to face individuals. The description was strengthened powerfully by describing it as an arrangement that ‘puts everyone in the front row’. True. It’s something anyone running meetings can envisage instantly. Language that is easy to identify adds to the strength of any piece.
If you set about it in the right way you can write an authoritative article that will really help people. It should end with a summary, a recap, allowing people to check that they have been following you and that they can give whatever it is a try. Here:
• Think through what you will say and not say first. Remember that you can’t say it all. See Start your article, below.
• Establish your credentials, factually and in style, early on
• Take things in context and make sure that advice is matched to readers.
• Make sure content is well structured and in a logical order (logical for the reader, that is).
• Avoid ambiguities. Be clear and avoid jargon.
• Use language to both explain and impress, using examples, anecdotes or analogies as appropriate.
• Make clear how what you say will help. Flag that it is not everything if that is the case. Prompt self-motivation as you go.
I know I have not covered everything here, but the key issues are laid out so you can try how-to writing for yourself. What you are writing may be factual but it needn’t, and shouldn’t, be dull. Finish with a flourish, with something designed to strike an appropriate note and stick in the reader’s mind. If you have not written this sort of thing before, have a go. It may take a moment to get to grips with it – remember the old saying ‘it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts’ – but how-to articles can satisfy your readers and make the editors who commission them want more from you. Knowing how to prompt that response has got to be good.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Writing Magazine, available in print and digital