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issue 35

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Training Bulletin Issue 35

Sleigh Riding For Beginners (or, How To Write Decent Instructions)

The press recently delighted in poking fun at a 93 page manual written to teach police officers how to ride bikes. With our tongue firmly in our cheek we wondered if Santa might appreciate something in a similar vein…

Santa, you must follow these instructions exactly, to:

1. Approach reindeer while holding bridle in one hand
2. Grasp reindeer firmly
3. Put bridle over reindeer’s head
4. Apply disinfectant to reindeer bite on hand
5. Retrieve bridle
6. Approach reindeer while holding bridle in one hand
7. Grasp reindeer firmly in crook of arm
8. Put bridle over reindeer’s head
9. Arise from floor of stable
10. Clean reindeer excrement from trousers
11. Check knees for bruises
12. Summon elf to help hold reindeer
13. Retrieve bridle
14. Put bridle over reindeer’s head
15. Adjust to fit firmly
16. Resist urge to pull straps too tightly

Congratulations! You are now ready to progress to Part 2, Deployment of Sleigh. (Continues for 93 pages)

Although the press thought the bike riding guide was over the top, many comments from cycle-riding members of the public thought such a guide was a good idea and possibly not even long enough!

People like detailed, clear instructions – but how do you write them?

Some of the criticisms of the police manual were about instructions for things that are too obvious, such as remembering to eat and drink enough when riding, or pretentious wording – “rear-scan” meaning, look over your shoulder. Riding a bike may be almost instinctive if you’ve done it since you were a toddler, but not everyone has. What about the many other tasks workers must perform, which very few people would have been doing since they were toddlers?

For instructions or procedures to be clear, they should follow these rules:

Each item should cover a single step:

WrongRight
1. Grasp reindeer firmly and put bridle over head1. Grasp reindeer firmly
2. Put bridle over reindeer’s head

The first example is also ambiguous – over whose head does the bridle go?

Use the same sentence construction, preferably the imperative, for each step:

WrongRight
1. Begin by approaching the reindeer
2. Now you must grasp it firmly
3. The bridle should be put over the reindeer’s head
1. Approach the reindeer
2. Grasp the reindeer firmly
3. Put the bridle over the reindeer’s head

This also ensures you avoid the passive voice, which can leave unclear who has to do what.

Know when to break the rules: avoid elegant variation and don’t be afraid to repeat:

WrongRight
1. Grasp reindeer firmly
2. Put bridle over mammal’s head
3. Apply disinfectant to animal bite on hand
1. Grasp the reindeer firmly
2. 2. Put the bridle over the reindeer’s head
3. Apply disinfectant to the reindeer bite on your hand

Instructional language must be purely functional and thus may bypass some of the rules for beautiful prose.
Also, write in complete sentences: omitting conjunctions, articles and prepositions may make instructions briefer but it’s human nature to complete the sentences in our heads and this slows down our reading and comprehension.

Beware of too much detail or too little:

RightAlso right!
1. Grasp reindeer firmly in crook of arm
2. Put bridle over reindeer’s head
1. Grasp the reindeer firmly in the crook of your arm:
  • a. Place your arm behind the reindeer’s neck
  • b. Bend your arm around the reindeer’s neck
  • c. Clench the fist of your bent arm against your chest
2. Put bridle over reindeer’s head

The only way to know how much detail is enough is to know who will be using your instructions. If you write for people at different levels then you must provide maximum detail for those who will need it but also structure your text in a way that allows more advanced users to progress faster.
If you find yourself going into minute detail, consider supplementing your written words with illustrations at that point.

Our course on Designing and Writing Technical Documents will tell you much more about how to write instructions and procedures that are clear and unambiguous.

Free tickets to come and meet us at Learning and Skills 2010!

We will have a stand at the Learning and Skills 2010 show at Olympia on 27 and 28 January. Please contact if you would like a free ticket to attend.

Editor recommends

That you have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year,
From all of us at Plain Words!

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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