Instructions (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

man and boy assembling a model
"When all else fails, read the instructions should not be taken as a failure of the user, but as a failure of designers to understand how people perform" (T. Marcel and P. Barnard, "Paragraphs of Pictographs" in Processing of Visible Language). (Hero Images/Getty Images)


In business writing, technical writing, and other forms of compositioninstructions are written or spoken directions for carrying out a procedure or performing a task. Also called instructive writing.

Step-by-step instructions typically use the second-person point of view (you, your, yours). Instructions are usually conveyed in the active voice and the imperative mood: Address your audience directly.

Instructions are often written in the form of a numbered list so that users can clearly recognize the sequence of the tasks.

Effective instructions commonly include visual elements (such as pictures, diagrams, and flowcharts) that illustrate and clarify the text. Instructions intended for an international audience ​may rely entirely on pictures and familiar symbols. (These are called wordless instructions.)



"Good instructions are unambiguous, understandable, complete, consistent, and efficient."

(John M. Penrose, et al., Business Communication for Managers: An Advanced Approach, 5th ed. Thomson, 2004)

Basic Features

"Instructions tend to follow a consistent step-by-step pattern, whether you are describing how to make coffee or how to assemble an automobile engine. Here are the basic features of instructions:

- Specific and precise title

- Introduction with background information

- List of parts, tools, and conditions required

- Sequentially ordered steps

- Graphics

- Safety information

- Conclusion that signals completion of task

Sequentially ordered steps are the centerpiece of a set of instructions, and they typically take up much of the space in the document."

(Richard Johnson-Sheehan, Technical Communication Today. Pearson, 2005)

Checklist for Writing Instructions

1. Use short sentences and short paragraphs.

2. Arrange your points in logical order.

3. Make your statements specific.

4. Use the imperative mood.

5. Put the most important item in each sentence at the beginning.

6. Say one thing in each sentence.

7. Choose your words carefully, avoiding jargon and technical terms if you can.

8. Give an example or an analogy, if you think a statement may puzzle a reader.

9. Check your completed draft for logic of presentation.

10. Don't omit steps or take shortcuts.

(Adapted from Writing With Precision by Jefferson D. Bates. Penguin, 2000)

Helpful Hints

"Instructions can be either freestanding documents or part of another document. In either case, the most common error is to make them too complicated for the audience. Carefully consider the technical level of your readers. Use white space, graphics, and other design elements to make the instructions appealing. Most important, be sure to include Caution, Warning, and Danger references before the steps to which they apply."

(William Sanborn Pfeiffer, Pocket Guide to Technical Communication, 4th ed. Pearson, 2007)

Testing Instructions

To evaluate the accuracy and clarity of a set of instructions, invite one or more individuals to follow your directions. Observe their progress to determine if all steps are completed correctly in a reasonable amount of time. Once the procedure has been completed, ask this test group to report on any problems they may have encountered and to offer recommendations for improving the instructions.

The Lighter Side of Instructions: Handbook for the Recently Deceased

Juno: Okay, have you been studying the manual?

Adam: Well, we tried.

Juno: The intermediate interface chapter on haunting says it all. Get them out yourselves. It's your house. Haunted houses aren't easy to come by.

Barbara: Well, we don't quite get it.

Juno: I heard. Tore your faces right off. It obviously doesn't do any good to pull your heads off in front of people if they can't see you.

Adam: We should start more simply then?

Juno: Start simply, do what you know, use your talents, practice. You should have been studying those lessons since day one.

(Sylvia Sidney, Alec Baldwin, and Geena Davis in Beetlejuice, 1988)

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