This article tells you how to write a how to, a skill you can take with you in almost any field and convert into hard, cold cash while simultaneously advertising your skills for the next job you get, even if not’s not writing. I’ve made a lot of money teaching people how to do things for decades, and I never saw all the elements of writing a good how to in one place. Instead, I studied the most popular, effective, and successful examples and came up this with short set of principles. It’s been drawn from applied psychology, wildly popular products from companies like Apple and Microsoft, and low-key sales techniques.
Make A Promise. Deliver it. Explain What It Meant
There’s a reason your English teacher didn’t make money as a writer. She didn’t have to worry about wasting people’s precious time. The saying goes that you should tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you said. Bull. Here’s what you should really do.
- Promise them you’ll improve their lives and how you’ll do it
- Show them something step by step
- Tell them what it meant
1. Promise them you’ll improve their lives, and how
A how to is a promise to solve a problem, often one that will be painful. So instead of telling people you’re going to explain how to install WordPress, you tell them you’re going to teach them how to fire their webmaster and instantly create a website they can maintain themselves.
Keep It As Short As You’d Want It To Be
Keep your how to as short as possible. Even if you’re paid to write by the word, don’t treat your job that way. People don’t have any time for anything anymore. Solve the problem as quickly as you can, without leaving anything out. Write short, punchy sentences without too many commas, colons, or semicolons. Avoid big words. Your English teacher liked them. Your readers just get agitated.
Use The Rule of 5
People can’t retain more than 3-5 items at a time. Write your sections in groups of 3 or 5-maybe 7 at most. Anything with sequences of more than 7 items to perform or to remember at once probably needs to be reorganized.
Start By Selling
Assume they don’t know how they got here. Somewhere in the first paragraph orient the user who was sent here by someone else by explaining what you’re going to teach them and why it’s a good thing. You may think that because they’re here, they have a good reason. You’re wrong. They may have landed on a web page someone else recommended. They may have been handed a printed document by a boss and aren’t certain what to do.
Make them feel good about reading what you’re going to write. That includes making them comfortable from the first paragraph, and they can’t be comfortable if they are constantly wondering why they’re here. The best salespeople are famous not for shoving their product or service down their customers’ throats, but for explaining clearly what the problem is and how it can be solved with what they’re selling. And in today’s world, everyone is doing sales. You must be forever vigilant in branding yourself and your employer.
2. Show Them Something Step By Step
Before you start writing, jot down each step you must cover in a separate line or paragraph. Then go through the process yourself, and add anything you omitted. Start each section with a summary of what they’ll learn in that section and how it fits into the bigger picture. Break the how to part into separate steps.
Bullets In The Head…ing.
Bullets are your friend. Headings are your friend. People don’t read these days. They scan. (By the way-the correct, original meaning of scan is the opposite of how it’s used. It used to mean an exhaustive, complete consumption of the material–just like a scanner. But that’s not how it’s used anymore, so I’m reluctantly going with the flow.) Readers will unconsciously jump from headline to headline before they do any actual reading.
Your writing teacher probably wanted you to write in a huge undifferentiated mass of text. That made Dickens rich–a hundred fifty years ago. Get with the program. Headings (a line of text set aside from the material using a different size, typeface, or type style) help the reader ignore what doesn’t matter and dive right in to what does.
Here’s how to use a heading. Anytime you have a sef-contained concept, it probably deserves a heading, plus anywhere form a sentence to a paragraph summing up that concept. Depending on the level of difficulty, you may also want to explain why knowing that concept will help the reader. Most word processors or online document editors such as Google Docs have a control that lets you choose Heading 1, Heading 2, and so on. Use them whenever possible. They normally convert to special HTML instructions when published on the web. These instructions help search engines and your human readers decide what needs emphasis.
The rule for using bullets is simple and widely ignored. Use one per step or per important concept. So instead of saying this, which is actually three steps:
Put the grated carrots into a pot of boiling water
You’d break down the steps in the way people expect them to happen:
- Start a pot of water boiling
- Grate the carrots
- Drop them into the boiling water
Like headings, bullets help cement concepts together in people’s minds. Even more important, when your reader refers back to what you wrote because they didn’t quite understand something, they can jump directly to the bullets and follow along. Not forcing them to read a lot just to find their place saves their psychic energy for completing their task.
3. Tell them what it meant
This is perhaps my only original contribution to the whole enterprise of writing. Your teacher was wrong about the summary. The summary shouldn’t tell your readers what you said. Duh, they just read it-they already know what you said! Instead, it should tell them what it meant and how their lives are better for knowing what you just taught them. It should therefore explain how you made good on your initial promise. That’s hard.
It’s easy to say “We’ve learned how to install WordPress on your website, write blog posts, and create pages.” Instead, say something like “It’s no longer possible for one person to create an maintain a complex website from scratch. WordPress does all the hard parts for you, and makes adding anything from a blog post to a whole new section no harder than a word processor. There’s plenty more to learn but this set of articles showed you everything you need to get a credible website built in under a day. Remember to update it frequently for security purposes, and see our next set of articles if you want to learn how to create an event calendar or back up so that you won’t lose critical data at the worst possible time.”
In an increasingly complex world, everything needs to be explained: manuals, sales material, websites establishing you as an authority. Words are more important than ever, and these same concepts can be applied to video learning too. The organization, promise, and fulfillment of the promise remain constant no matter what the medium.
Speaking of which:
Summarize everything up front, break things up into little pieces, use short declarative sentences, and embrace the bullet. You can’t go wrong writing a how to if you follow those principles. Even better: everything you write is proof that you’re an expert in your field, and will show your next boss that your knowledge is so deep you can how to write a how to better than anyone else: what better reason to hire you?