How to Write Instructions Clearly

by Linda Ray; Updated September 26, 2017
Young woman sitting on the bed and working on a laptop

Many people won't read instructions except as a last resort. Once people do read them, they're helpful only if they are written in clear, concise language. When you understand your audience, you’ll be better prepared to provide an introduction, followed by the instructions.

Study Your Audience

Instructions usually tell a reader how to do, build, operate or maintain a product or procedure. First, qualify your intended audience to know how well they understand the topic. For example, if you’re writing instructions for new hires, they should be written in plain language, while instructions for senior management may include more industry lingo. Use language appropriate to the readers, and include as many details as they need to perform the task.

Create an Introduction

Very often readers skip a narrative introduction and move right into the instructions. One way to help readers move through introductions is to write an explanation or reason for the instructions in a numbered list instead of paragraph form. Readers are more likely to review the list. Include the purpose of the instructions, who should read the document and what it includes, each under a separate heading. This introduction also gives readers a clue as to what is not covered.

Use Active Voice

Refrain from using passive voice, such as “The white wire should be inserted into plug A.” Instead, write instruction as commands that require active voice, such as “Insert the white wire into plug A.” Whether you’re writing a list, a narrative or a booklet, break up long sentences with multiple steps into brief instructions that are listed under headings. Break up sentences that include the word “and” into shorter separate sentences. Instead of writing “The cable should be spliced and placed into the red outlet,” write two sentences beginning with action verbs, such as “Splice the cable. Place the spliced cable into the red outlet.” A clear, bold heading could say something like “Hook Up the Wires.”

Separate Actions from Explanatory Information

Very often, instructions also need explanations. Write explanatory comments in one of two ways. Bold the actual instructions so that they stand out, or provide explanations in a separate column for reference. One tactic is to place the steps on one side of the document, with the explanations in a short paragraph in a side-by-side column. Another, more effective way is to bold the actual instructions and complete the step by writing the explanation. For example, “Press the red button for three seconds (bolded). This will allow the light to activate.”

About the Author

Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."

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