July 26, 2006
Liz published this at 9:48 am
How to Or Not How to
People are always teaching each other. We show each other new and easier ways to do things. As writers we teach people what we’ve learned. As readers, they teach us new stuff. All of this teaching surrounds one question, How?
As a reader ready to learn, I find nothing more frustrating than a how-to article that doesn’t work. As a writer writing one, I know how hard it is not to miss something important. I’ve scoured my files to compile a list — a baker’s dozen — of things readers want when we answer How?
12+1 Things Every Reader Wants from a How-To Article
Every how question has a how-to answer. Unfortunately, not all how-to answers are equal in their information value. Some get us exactly what we need to know. Others, well, others leave us scratching our heads and wondering why the writers wrote them. Here are the 12+1 things that every reader wants from a how-to article.
1. Know your subject inside out. If you don’t know the subject, get to be an expert on it or don’t write about it. My time is short and I came for solid information. This is your chance to make yourself a trusted source. Don’t blow it.
2. Write with confidence so that I don’t worry. I don’t see any logical reason that I should have more confidence in what you’re saying that you do.
3. Give the article a clear title that tells me what I’ll learn by reading it. Now is not the time to be esoteric. If I came to learn, I intend to read an article to answer my questions and solve my problems. Make it easy for me to see whether your article has what I’m looking for.
4. Give me a separate materials list. If I’m have to gather things, make it easy for me to do that. While you’re there, tell me how long It should take to complete the project successfully.
5. Grab and keep my attention with an introduction that lets me know what you’re going to teach me, the materials I need to do this new thing, and WHY I want to know how to do it.
7. Put all of the steps in order as they need to be completed. This isn’t a movie script — no flashbacks, please. Bold the materials in the text of each step, so that I know which one I’ll use next.
8. Remember to give the relevant details. I know it takes a little longer, but those details are the difference between my understanding and my misinterpreting your directions. I’m trusting you to provide all I need. Getting this one right, and I’ll see you as a great teacher.
9. Write on a need-to-know basis. Read the finished article to take out everything I don’t need to know. Extraneous information is fun, but it’s confusing to a learner. It will stop me and make me wonder. I’ll wonder whether I’m supposed to do use it. If you must include that little extra tidbit, put it in the introduction or conclusion as a benefit or explaination.
10. Make your directions imprerative sentences. That is, start each sentence with a verb, as I did with the steps in this list. That helps me focus on what the task is without have to sift through extra words.
11. Tell me — in the conclusion — what product I’ll have if I follow your directions. Also tell me why having made or done that as you suggest will make my life better, easier, or more successful. I want to feel the satisfaction of having read your article. I also need the call to action that will get me try the project you’re suggesting.
12. Test the directions. Do every step in order or better yet, get someone who doesn’t know how to do the project by following your directions. Your credibility will be safe, sealed, and delivered, if your tester gets the results your promise.
PLUS ONE: To fill out this baker’s dozen, don’t forget to let folks know why you do the what you’re teaching and how it has had a positive impact on your own life.
The Impact of a How-to Article
How-to writing is a genre used by every day by almost every person. It’s a particularly strong business and blog tool. When the topic is well-chosen, how-to articles are automatic promotion. Readers are searching for answers. How-articles provide them. Articles with answers have the power to establish expertise and credibility, especially when they’re written with depth as a cohesive series. Using a series approach, how-to articles can be a strong tool to establishing brand expertise as well as providing business and blog promotion.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had with a how-to article? What’s the best?
–ME “Liz” Strauss
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