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5 concrete rules for writing clear and effective instructions (with examples)

5 concrete rules for writing clear and effective instructions (with examples)

Learn 5 concrete rules for writing clear and effective instructions, with examples of best practice, and bad practices to avoid.

Published on
November 2022

Writing good instructions is not easy. We've all tried to work through confusing and frustrating instructions.

We've put together this list of rules to help you prepare best-practice work instructions that are clear concise, and—most importantly—effective.

1. Make it all about the reader

When you’re writing instructions, of course, it’s normal for you to use language that comes naturally to you. If you’re an expert in your field, then it’s easy for technical jargon to creep into your writing. Because your job has become second nature, it’s also really easy to become overly familiar with the job and skip over some important details.

But you'll need to stop and think about what this will mean for your readers.

Don’t make assumptions

Firstly, don’t assume that your reader already knows what you’re talking about. Put yourself in their shoes, what will they need to know, or what will they need to do?

Don’t assume that equipment will always be turned on. If it’s normal to switch off a machine after every use, then tell them how to turn it on. If they need to know that the switch is behind the machine, on the right, then tell them that too.

And never assume they are already wearing appropriate safety equipment. Your instructions should always specify any relevant safety information.

But don’t be patronising

You don’t want to include unnecessary details. This could be frustrating for the reader. But also, if you include extra information that isn’t useful, then your reader may be tempted to skim-read parts of the document. If your reader thinks they can skim over certain parts, they may miss an important step, and your instructions will not have been effective.

So, you can make some assumptions about your reader.

For example, it may be safe to assume that your reader is already at their workstation, with their computer turned on and logged in. We're not going to start our instructions with, "Walk into the building, Find your desk, Sit down…".

It’s also safe to assume that your reader understands everyday English words—that is if you’re writing your instructions in English. You don’t need to define non-technical words.

Unless you know otherwise, you can assume that computer users will be familiar with such terms as 'click', 'right-click', 'drag-and-drop' etc.

❌ What not to do:

Press the right button on the mouse while the little arrow on screen is over the name of the file you want to edit

No, this is condescending. Unless you're writing for young children, then assume your reader has a basic understanding.

✔️ Write this instead:

Right-click on the filename

Use plain English

We’re not trying to impress anyone with our vocabulary here, so use easy-to-understand, everyday words. Have mercy on your readers; they just want to get on with their jobs.

Don’t use acronyms just to save yourself time—you’re not going to run out of paper.

❌ What not to do:

The boiler will have a control valve.
Release the CV 180 degrees.

No. Abbreviating 'control valve' to 'CV' doesn't help the reader. The word 'release' is not specific enough. And is it necessary for the reader to think in degrees?

✔️ Write this instead:

The boiler control valve is to the right of the boiler.
Turn the valve half a turn anti-clockwise.

Yes, this avoids acronyms and includes specific directions to help the reader.

2. Keep each instruction short

Make your instructions concise, clear, and simple.

Be direct

One way to keep your instructions short is to be direct. It may make your writing appear less polite, but your readers will appreciate the simplicity.

Avoid starting instructions with phrases such as "You will need to" or "You should".

❌ What not to do:

This will need to be done 7 times.

No. Just tell the user what to do.

✔️ Write this instead:

Do this 7 times.

Yes, that's better.

Use just one verb where possible

This might sound like an arbitrary rule, but it is a useful reminder to keep your instructions punchy.

Listen to a YouTube tutorial, and you'll hear plenty of filler phrases, such as: "Now, what you're going to want to do next is, …". This is a natural part of spoken language, but avoid using this in your written instructions. It just makes the instructions unnecessarily long and complex. You also risk losing your point in amongst the noise.

Common scenarios where we see extra verbs are:

  • "You're going to want to click on XYZ". This should just be, "Click on XYZ".
  • "Go to the top menu and click on XYZ". This should be, "Click on XYZ".
  • "Find the big red button and push it". This should be, "Push the big red button".
  • "Decide which option to take and then select that one". This should be "Select your chosen option" or similar.

Break your instructions into consistent steps

This doesn't mean that every step must be the same length, one sentence, or any other such arbitrary number.

Rather, each instruction should form a consistent pattern. This pattern should correspond to an appropriate level of detail for your readers.

Don't try to squeeze your list of steps down to an arbitrary number. We see this often with some organisations obsessed with the idea that everything should be described in "3 simple steps". This is counterproductive when it would have been clearer to express the same process in 4 or 5 steps. Or sometimes, just 2.

Some useful hints:

  • Does each step describe just one action? Look out for the word "and" appearing in your instructions.
  • Does each action make a meaningful contribution to the process as a whole?
  • Will the user be able to complete the action in one move, or will they need to note how far through the instruction they got?
  • Started a new numbered instruction whenever your user needs to change tools.

❌ What not to do (borrowed from a high-street bank's banking app):

1. Press the Green button until the screen turns on.
2. Enter your 4-8 digit PIN and press the Yellow button.
3. Enter the last 4 digits of the payee's account number.
4. Press the Yellow button to get your 6-digit authorisation code. Enter this below.

No. This is inconsistent. Why, when we've pressed the yellow button at the end of step 2, are we not asked to also press the yellow button at the end of step 3? And a vital step is hidden away at the end of step 4.

✔️ Write this instead:

1. Hold down the Green button until the screen turns on.
2. Enter your PIN and press the Yellow button.
3. Enter the last 4 digits of the payee's account number and press the Yellow button.
4. Enter the 6-digit authorisation code into the box below.

This has a more consistent rhythm that the user can follow. Also notice that changing "Press" to "Hold down" in the first instruction makes it clearer what the user needs to do.

3. Be specific in your instructions

Describe each action, not the outcome

It's easy for someone familiar with a job to think of each task in terms of what the step achieves. But you need to be more specific so that everyone can understand your instructions, especially if they're not familiar with the job.

Tell your reader exactly what they need to do.

❌ What not to do:

Release the pressure on the main tank.

No. This is what you want to acheive, not what action you want your reader to do. A novice wouldn't know how to release the pressure, or even which is the main tank.

✔️ Write this instead:

Turn the valve half a turn anti-clockwise.

Yes. This now explains exactly what needs to be done. Or, even better:

Turn the valve half a turn anti-clockwise to release the pressure on the main tank.

Use precise language

“Process the batch” is not clear. “Click on the Process button” is clear.

“Go to…” can be vague. When we’re speaking, “Go to” means different things in different circumstances. For example, it could mean “Walk to…”, “Move the mouse to…” or “Navigate to this webpage”. "Go to" when used to point to a website—such as, "Go to www.middlestone.ltd"—would be acceptable, but be wary of other instances.

Avoid starting instructions with “Choose…”. Making a choice does not necessarily result in action. We need the reader to take action. So instead, say, “Select”, “Tick” or whatever action is required to indicate that choice.

Also, “Send…” is not specific enough. Use "Email", "Mail" etc to be more specific.

But don't be overly prescriptive

Keep in mind that there is often more than one acceptable way to do something.

For example, some people prefer using the mouse ("mousers"), while others love a good keyboard shortcut. Try to write your instructions for both types of users. Avoid just saying "Click OK", when "Press the enter key" will achieve the same thing. One way to help out both user types is to include both sets of instructions. Just be consistent, by, for example, giving the mouse move first, and then the keyboard shortcut in brackets.

Another example is telling your users which hand to use. This is surprisingly common for some manual jobs, such as, “Take the component in your left hand, and with your right hand twist XYZ”. This doesn't work well if your reader is left-handed. Would rephrasing this as simply, "Twist XYZ" still achieve the same result?

4. Keep your instructions in a logical order

Include information in the order that your reader will need it. Don’t make your readers have to read ahead. Of course, we should all read all the instructions first before we start. But we don't, and your readers won’t either.

Some practical things to avoid:

  • Don’t assume that any part of the process is pre-prepared (or 'pre-heated'). If the worker needs to create a new folder first, before they can save a file to it, then say so. If the worker needs to first assemble the box they’re going to use, then say so—not just, “Put it in the box”.

Add any warnings before the instruction

Avoid putting warnings after the instructions. If your reader is working through them line-by-line, then they won’t read the warning until after they've completed the task—when it is too late. The warning could even end up being printed on a separate page from the instruction. For example:

❌ What not to do:

Pass the potato to Kevin.
You may have to wait a few minutes first for the potato to cool down.

❌ Or:

Pass the potato to Kevin.
Warning, the potato will be hot. Don’t touch it until it has cooled down.

No, in both of these examples the warning comes too late. You've already burnt your hand! In the first example, the warning of "You may want to" is too vague.

✔️ Write this instead:

The potato will be hot, so wait 3 minutes for it to cool down.
Carefully check that the potato has cooled down and pass it to Kevin.

Add any conditions before the instruction

Your readers may start work even before they've finished reading the whole sentence. So include all necessary information upfront.

❌ What not to do:

Go and speak to Mary if necessary

No, this could be read as an instruction to go and speak to Mary every time. You'll also notice this instruction has two verbs.

✔️ Write this instead:

If you need any help, speak to Mary

Yes, this emphasises that speaking to Mary is not necessary every time.

Add any necessary context before the instruction

If the reader can't immediately see how to perform the next step in the real world, they will feel stupid, and get frustrated. Quickly.

Guide the reader by giving them context. Help them at least look in the right direction.

❌ What not to do:

Press the bright red button on the third page

No. The user is already looking for the bright red button before they've finished the sentence. They'll likely get frustrated when they can't see it, and then re-read the instructions and feel stupid for not noticing that they need to navigate to the third page first.

✔️ Write this instead:

On the third page, press the bright red button

Yes. This might not seem as natural, but this will make the reader navigate to the third page first, and then look for the bright red button. Avoiding any frustration.

5. Make your instructions easy to navigate

Number your instructions

This makes it easier for your reader to find their place again after they have completed a step.

It also makes it easier to refer your reader to another step—for example, "Now repeat steps 5 to 9".

Use natural language cross-references

If you're talking about something that happened in the previous step, or that will happen in the next step, then use words like "previous" or "next step".

When you're on, for example, step 3, don't cross-reference to "step 4"—say "the next step" instead. This is quicker for the reader to understand.

However, avoid referring to any step as the "last step", because this has two meanings. Use "final" or "previous" instead.

Include extra information as asides

Including extra information can be very helpful. This could be telling your reader the reasons behind certain tasks, warnings, or where to look for more information. To avoid cluttering your instructions, include this information in such a way that it doesn't interrupt their flow.

One way, is to put this in clearly marked boxes that the user can skip over. Another is to split your work into two columns, and include instructions in one column and additional information in the second.


Writing effective work instructions is a learned skill.

But follow our 5 rules, and you'll find your instructions become a lot simpler and easier to follow:

  • Make it all about the reader
  • Keep each instruction short
  • Be specific in your instructions
  • Keep your instructions in a logical order, and
  • Make your instructions easy to navigate.

Of course, we’re also available to help you with your specific project. We can sit with you, or your front-line workers, and capture exactly how your processes work and create best-practice process documentation for you.

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About the author

About Middlestone

Middlestone Business Analysis helps small businesses achieve more with their existing resources. We help reorganise operations, automate tasks and install customised processes and systems to keep small businesses organised and to speed up administrative work. To learn more, visit our services page.

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