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HomeRants > How to organize a step-by-step procedure. > Put instructions into discrete steps.



Make each step a discrete object.

Guidelines on writing instructions

Put instructions into discrete steps.

Steps are the heart of a procedure.

Each step specifies an action that your users take on the way toward accomplishing their goal.

When you make each step clear and easy to follow, you make the whole procedure memorable.

In that way, you ensure that the skill will be transmitted intact to the reader, developing the reader's expertise.

Steps look easy to write, but they take more rewriting than almost anything else in a procedure.

To write a good step, you have to consider a multitude of possibilities, while focusing on the experience of the user, moment to moment.

  • What are my users thinking?
  • What are their circumstances?
  • How is their situation different from mine?
  • How can I make clear exactly what to do?
  • How can I keep them from going wrong?

 Ill-considered steps lead readers to make mistakes, slow them down, and increase their sense of helplessness.

Additional detail on instructions:

Format steps so they stand out

Write short, energetic steps.

How many steps?

Separate explanations from steps

Make each step a discrete object.

Putting each instruction in its own step, as a distinct object, has several benefits:

  • Users begin to anticipate that each step will contain one meaningful action.
  • You avoid the problems of piggybacking, in which multiple instructions collide in the user's mind, and cancel each other out.
  • Numbering increases efficiency by about a third: people find their place, and do not accidentally redo a step, or skip a step. Make a number (or bullet for a single-step procedure) a component of the instruction object.
  • You do not produce that false brevity which consists of compressing several actions into a single ambiguous statement, leading to confusion.
  • You can re-use the step without any accompanying explanations, as in a quick reference.
  • In personalizing the procedure, a user can choose to leave out explanations, looking at only the steps.

As an object, an instruction's job is to answer the question, "What should I do next?" with one meaningful action.

Guidelines on writing instructions

To make sure that your steps work for your users:


Probe your audiences--gently.

Help (A chapter from Hot Text: Web Writing that Works. PDF: 995K, or about 18 minutes at 56K).


Was I supposed to put shaving soap on this brush before I rubbed my face?


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