How to Write Clear Instructions

Being able to think through and write clear instructions is a valuable skill at school (a lab report or engineering project), at work (a technical manual or instructions for a device), and here at wikiHow!

Read on for the basic steps in creating a clear, logical and achievable set of instructions.


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    Know exactly how to do the task. You must be very familiar with the steps of the process before you can write instructions. That means you know how to do this- you're not guessing or reading someone else's ideas. You have done this yourself!
    • Know how to begin the process. This may include gathering needed materials or supplies, or laying out a work area. You must explain this first.
    • Know what the end result looks like or does. You have seen the result (a baked cake, a radiator installed, a bicycle put together, the web page changing color, etc.) You must make sure the reader will end up with the same results.
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    Plan how to write the steps in order. Instructions are written in small increments (manageable tasks that are clear, easy to follow to completion). You must know what is done first, second, third.
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    Write instructions beginning with a verb. (here: "Write") The reader must DO something each time.
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    Write each step as a small piece. That means, each step should be small, a baby step in the whole process. It should be easy to read at once, and then turn and DO it right away. It shouldn't contain multiple things to do at the same time.
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    Include warnings as pre-steps. If it's critical that something be done (or NOT be done) before something else, write it as a step to do before the next step. For example, "check (or close) the drain plug," must be a step before "add oil to the tank."
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    Write the steps logically in order. Don't depend on the reader going down the page and reading all the tips and warnings before beginning to do the process. Or the reader going to read all the fine points in small print before starting. Include each point in its own step that begins with a verb.
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    Review and edit your instructions carefully. Make sure your writing is complete and correct. We've all seen poorly written instructions for assembling that Christmas toy that make us laugh, but don't get the toy assembled. Don't repeat that mistake.
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    Express steps in the positive. It's much preferable to say DO something rather than DON'T do something. For example, instead of saying "don't forget the salt," write "add salt when the eggs boil."
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    Avoid expressing opinions, preferences or choices. Instructions are not about what might happen, what someone could choose, what you personally prefer. Instructions are factual statements that give an action to perform. Options can be explained in another section of the document.
    • Minor choices can be stated with "or" statement. For example, you can write "add chili, Tabasco sauce, or pepper flakes." But "you might not want to make it too spicy" is not an instruction.


  • Instructions must be about how to do a real, tangible, physical action. It's hard to write or perform an instruction for something you "think", or "pretend", or "believe".
  • Use the imperative form.
  • For technical, scientific, engineering, or other mechanical process, try to have an image for each step. This could be a photo, drawing, or sketch. Make sure it's large enough to see exactly what's happening, without fingers or tools being in the way.
  • Instructions are not about personal beliefs or opinions. No one will follow your instructions if your rationale is "well I like this", or "just try it and see", or "good luck". Instructions are factual, they are not encouragement.
  • Don't start sentences with present participles (verbs ending in -ing). "Starting sentences with present participles usually makes the sentence awkward and the meaning less clear."
  • Maintain logical sequences in presentation.
  • Allow time for the actor to respond, by making sure each step is manageable, and writing in "breaks". For example, you could write, "step back and look at the whole table. Is it flat? If not,..."
  • Avoid the word "always" in an imperative statement.
  • Enumerate each step to avoid ambiguity and ensure the correct order of presentation.
  • Begin a step with an action verb. "Being" something is not something you can do. Neither is "get someone else to...". It must be something you do yourself.
  • Avoid verbose language.
  • For each step, add a sentence or phrase so the actor can judge if he has performed the step correctly. For example, "look for the screw on the bottom side of the shelf", or "notice the icon has now turned red".
  • Include only one or two sentences in each step. Each step must be done in a single motion, or thought process.
  • Instructions are not prohibitions. They tell you how to do something you want to do, not what is prohibited.


  • Instructions can be considered legal documents. People follow them and trust they will not be harmed or killed. Write any dangers clearly at the top, especially for chemicals, machinery, biological hazards, or environmental hazards.

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Categories: Better Writing | Official Writing and Complaints