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How to: Write a How To Guide

This may seem counterintuitive, but I promise you, it’s not. Teaching someone how to perform a task, in person or in writing, is easier said than done. It is a very specific form of communication. Every word counts, and clutter brings on confusion. In order to make your own tutorials and explanations truly helpful, we’re going to take a look at the makings of a good How To Guide.


1)    Explain in such a way that a child could understand. Some people actually practice this. It is a habit of some successful attorneys to speak in front of grade school children, in preparation for a trial. If one child raises his hand and says he doesn’t understand, the attorney starts over. The thinking is, if a bunch of kids can understand it, so can a jury. This is a also a necessary principle for any top finance blog, podcast, or cooking tutorial. Making your material comprehensible is not the same thing as condescending. Don’t insult anyone’s intelligence, just be clear.


2)    Be Entertaining. Entertainment in writing is about giving your reader little surprises or treats along the way. Reading tutorials isn’t inherently fun. The subject matter quickly grows dry, and words start running together. By making the writing more fun, it’s easier to pass on the necessary knowledge. Think Alton Brown, Bill Nye, and Mr. Rogers. All three were/are very successful at communicating information, but they are also magnificent entertainers.


3)    Be succinct. Say what you have to say, and then stop. By whittling down your tutorial pitch to a few actionable steps, your guide will be much more successful. People can tell when you’re just writing fluff. Incisive content makes good reading. Think of your guide like a haiku. Contain your thoughts in few words, then wrap it up.


4)    Lead your audience to other sources. If you are writing on a topic that can’t possibly be communicated in a few paragraphs, just get the ball rolling. By giving your audience a good primer, they’ll be ready to do further research on their own. This is another reason to make the information interesting. If you are able to pass on genuine interest, as well as general knowledge, your audience will be prepared to learn on their own. It’s the old “buy a man a fish/teach a man to fish” scenario. Reference specific resources that your readers can easily find.


5)    Use images, graphs, and statistics. If you are writing a how-to guide on anything more complicated than “how to write a how to guide”, use images to support your information. Graphs and charts can make ideas stick, ideas that are hard to communicate in words. Similarly, pictures give your readers’ brains a break, something to look at before diving back into the words.


These are the basic elements of any How To Guide. Some guides will have to be more complex than the one I’ve outlined, but should still contain the points illustrated here. These points hold true for nearly every form on educational writing. Of course, some topics may be truly difficult, but additional clarity and readability never hurt anyone.