How to Write Instructions

by Michael LaTorra


Every set of instructions should begin with an Introduction. The Introduction should tell the reader a little bit about what the instructions are for, and who can perform these instructions, including mentioning any dangers involved. For example, the instructions might be about how to use an arc welder. The reader should be told that arc welders are powerful and can be dangerous, so arc welders should not be used by children.

You will need to repeat any danger warnings in the Directions portion of the Instructions document. The reason for this is that, sadly, many people skip right past the Introduction and go straight to the Directions. These are the people who most need to be warned of any dangers!

Description of Equipment

Write, illustrate and label any equipment that most people would not know from their ordinary experience. For example, a micrometer, fuel pump or trans-dimensional teleporter. (By the way, if you have a trans-dimensional teleporter, I’d love to see a demonstration!)

Identification number: Description:
1. Upper drive bracket (bays 1-4)
2. Lower drive bracket (bays 5-6)
3. System board
4. Video adapter
5. Expansion slots
6. Microprocessor
7. Power supply











List of Materials

  • Put all the required materials and equipment into a bulleted list
  • Use one line for each item
  • Include photos or drawings or diagrams wherever possible


Setting Up

  1. Use numbered steps.NOTE: Do not use lettered steps or bullets!
  2. Use statements like NOTE (see above) to interject important information that is not a step
    and is not the result of a step.NOTE: NEVER begin a step by saying “Now” or “Next” or “Then” since the step number already
    indicates the sequence.
  3. Begin each step with an action verb.
  4. Put only one action in each step. An action is anything done by the person who is
    performing the instructions. Anything that results from an action is not a step! For
    example, if the step is for the person to open a value, then say “Open the valve.” If the
    result of that action is that gas begins to flow, then say in the same step “Gas will begin to
    flow.” Do not list the statement “Gas will begin to flow” as a step! It is the result of a
    step, not a step in itself.

Begin the Stuff

  1. Begin this new task with some action. CAUTION! Performing the following step incorrectly could result in damage to the
  2. Do something here that is necessary but slightly dangerous to the equipment. WARNING! Performing the following step incorrectly could result in slight injury to you
    and damage to the equipment.
  3. Do something here that is necessary but slightly dangerous to you and the
    equipment. DANGER! Performing the following step incorrectly could result in severe injury or
    death to you and/or to other people nearby.
  4. Do something here that is necessary but very dangerous to you and to other people
  5. Use icons or symbols as in the above examples for CAUTION, WARNING and
    DANGER in order to catch the reader’s attention quickly.

Finishing Up

  1. Use illustrations as much as possible. Generally, the more, the better.
  2. Count up the steps in your Directions. If there are more than about 10-12 steps, you might
    want to divide them into tasks. A task is a subdivision of the Directions section. Each task
    gets a heading (for example, “Setting Up”) and begins with a step number 1. Do not
    continue the step numbering from one task to another! For example, if the next task is
    “Testing for Heavy Metals” then it must begin with its own step 1.


Every set of instructions should have a Troubleshooting section. In the Troubleshooting section, address common problems that may occur and give solutions in one or the other of the recommended forms, but not both!

(A) Question & Answer Form
Q: Why should I explain how to fix problems when my Directions are foolproof?
A: Because there will always be a bigger fool than you can imagine. Most problems result from people not following the Directions properly. Your job in Troubleshooting is to recognize the most commonly made mistakes and tell people how to fix them.

(B) Problem and Solution Form

Problem Solution
There are more possible problems than I can list. About 80% of the time, only 20% of the things that can go wrong will go wrong. Focus on that 20%.
A problem occurred that I did not list. Tell the reader to contact a professional to help with any problems not listed here.

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