The Basics of Instructional Writing: 3 Simple Steps

September 20, 2022 Surya Nair

Instructional writing, as the name suggests, provides instructions on how to do something. Whether they are instructions on making lemonade, assembling furniture, operating a machine, repairing a printer, or using a software application, the basics of instructional writing are the same.  

Here are some guidelines to follow when creating instructional content: 

  1. Plan the content  

  • Study and understand the procedure that you need to document.  

  • Organize complex procedures into a series of tasks. 

  • Identify the steps involved in completing each task. 

  • Arrange the steps in sequence. Make sure to not miss even small steps. 

  • Add tips or helpful hints and notes where required. 
     

How do you determine when to break down a procedure into tasks?  

Take the example of an instructional manual for a software application. A simple procedure like "How to log in to the application" can be described in a few steps whereas a more involved procedure like "How to manage user accounts and user roles" can include many steps. It makes sense to break down such procedures into tasks. 

Example (Log in procedure that contains only a single task) 
Note: Instructions for the task are provided in this example. 

How to log in to the application: 

  1. Launch the application.  

  1. In the Log In window that displays, enter the username and password, and click Log in. 

  1. The Home screen displays the main user interface. 

Example (User role set up procedure that contains multiple tasks) 
Note: Instructions for each task are not provided in this example. 

How to manage user accounts and user roles: 

  • Task 1 - Add, modify, or delete user roles 

  • Task 2 - Set up user accounts and user groups 

  • Task 3 - Assign roles to users/groups 

  • Task 4 - Set up module access to user groups 

 

Tip: As demonstrated in the example above, it is best to break down complex procedures into multiple smaller tasks with less steps in each task rather than keep it as a single long procedure with 50 or 70 steps. Tasks with fewer steps (less than 20) will be easier for the reader to follow. 

 

  1. Organize and structure the content 

Provided below is a typical content structure for an instructional guide: 

  • A heading that clearly identifies the procedure being documented  

  • A brief introduction to the procedure 

  • Any prerequisites that the user should be aware of 

  • Learning Objectives for each procedure, if applicable for your content 

  • Tasks in each procedure organized in a logical sequence 

  • A heading that clearly identifies each task (ideally this should include the action verb for the task)  
    (For example – Apply an existing color scheme, Create a new color scheme, Modify a color scheme, Create room-specific color scheme) 

  • Steps within each task organized sequentially using numbered lists and enhanced with graphical references, where required 

  • Warnings, tips, hints, or notes to provide additional information 

  • A concluding step that indicates the completion of a task 

 

The screenshot below is a sample of instructional writing from the ASCENT learning guide Autodesk Inventor 2023: Advanced Assembly Modeling

Text

Description automatically generated 

  1. Test your content 

This is an important final step to ensure that the instructions are complete and that there are no missing steps. 
 

If you are tasked with writing instructions for a product or procedure but are unsure of how to begin, let the technical writers at ASCENT help! Please reach out so we can discuss your project. Email us at: Tech.writing@ASCENTed.com  

About the Author

Surya Nair

Technical Writer and Editor<br><br>Surya has been writing and editing technical content for over two decades in multiple industries. How do you transform complex technical content into an easy-to-understand document? Ask Surya - technical writing is her passion! She has been with ASCENT since 2018. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature, and a diploma in Journalism, and is a certified Technical Writer.

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