How To Write How Tos

Adding “how to” to a title attracts people to blogs, articles, and books. People usually search the Web for solutions to problems or ways to do things better. So, how do you write a “how to”? Here are some simple steps from my experience writing “how tos” as a technical writer.

1. Pick a specific problem to solve.

Readers are looking to solve a specific problem, such as how to patch a hole in a wall or upgrade their computer to a new version of the operating system. Your “how to” must also be specific. The shorter your article, the more specific your “how to” must be.

A subject like “How to Repair Your House” may be fine for a book or series of books. It is too broad for a short article. Even for a book, it would require readers to scour the index or wade through pages of procedures until they give up and look somewhere else. A better subject would be “How to Repair Damage to Walls” or “How to Patch Large Holes in Drywall.” Readers would be more likely to look there for a solution to their specific problem.

2. Tell readers everything they need to know before performing a task — especially safety warnings.

Start your “how to” with a list of everything readers need before performing the task. It could be a set of supplies and tools, or a level of experience, such as “This task should be performed with someone with experience in carpentry.” Also include any warnings, such as “Turn off the circuit breakers before removing drywall. If you accidentally cut wires in the wall, the shock can be fatal.”

3. Break down the task into simple steps.

Each step must describe a single action, such as “Cut the drywall around the hole to the closest stud.” It is acceptable to include a related actions if it is part of the same stage of the process. For example, you can add to that step, “Use a stud finder to locate the stud.”

4. Limit the number of steps.

Most technical writers swear by the “seven plus or minus two rule” for determining the number of steps in a procedure. Limiting the number of steps makes it easier for readers to keep track of where they are in the procedure. It also makes the task seem less intimidating.

If a task requires more than nine steps, you need to break that task down into smaller tasks. For our drywall example, you may want to have one task for repairing the hole and another for applying texture and paint.

5. Include examples.

Examples can make a procedure more concrete for a reader. They also help readers make decisions about how to perform a task. For example, “If the hole is smaller than 4 inches (10.16 centimeters) in diameter, you can cover it with a drywall patch.”

6. Include pictures that show the right amount of detail.

Pictures can either help a “how to” or make it more confusing. The difference is in how clearly it provides information to the reader. A picture should show a specific step in the procedure and give enough detail to show what is happening, but not too much detail that a reader can’t see or focus on the right information.

Here’s an example from Popular Mechanics:

This picture gives a clear idea of what you are supposed to do in this step. You don’t even need to read the text. It also helps that this image is computer-generated. It enables the artist to show the task in a natural matter without the distracting shadows and texture that would appear in a photograph. The computer-generated image also works well when viewed on a screen or on paper.

7. Show the expected outcome.

“When you have completed the procedure the patch should blend into the wall with no visible seams or differences in texture. There should be no bend in the drywall when you put light pressure on it. Your repair is finished.”

A conclusion like this tells readers several things. First, what the completed project will look like. They can compare their results and see if they did the job right. If not, they can check back through the steps and correct their mistakes. Second, it tells readers that the procedure is done.

With this information, you now know how to write a “how to.” Pick your subject and start writing!