How to Write a How-to

I’ve been working on a 1960s Singer sewing machine that I found in a yard sale.  Job #1 – replace the motor drive belt.  How hard could it possibly be to replace a sewing machine belt?  Not so hard once you have a good how-to.  The manual?  No, it wasn’t poorly written.  That information just isn’t in it although it did contain a part number for the replacement belt.  The video on Youtube?  Do not get me started on that video other than to say it was not helpful.  Finally I found a well-written tutorial.

From crafts to science fair projects, publishers of various kinds buy how-tos.  Here, written as a how-to, are the steps you need to follow.

  1. Start with your ingredient/materials list.  Be specific.  That means that if you are writing a recipe, you need to write 3 Cups Flour.  For assembly instructions, don’t just say “screwdriver.”  Say “flathead screwdriver.”
  2. Keep steps manageable.  I’ve seen recipes that say things like “Make brownies according to package instructions, bake and cool.” That’s my friend is not one step.
  3. Instruct the reader to do things in order.  I once made a huge mess in the church kitchen while following the instructions on the coffee maker.  The words “before” and “prior to” do not belong in a how-to.  “After” is fine but “before” is not.
  4. After you’ve written out your steps, follow them.  If you are writing out instructions for something you know how to do well, this will be difficult but do exactly what you have written down. If that is impossible, add what you forgot to write down the first time.  Don’t worry. We all have to add things when we try to follow our own how-tos.
  5. Have someone else follow your instructions.  If they have any questions, rewrite again.

Writing and selling how-tos means writing smooth and straightforward steps with nothing missing and no time drains.  Editors and readers will thank you.