How to Write How-to

The bomb was set to detonate in five minutes. Officer Wilson, the first to arrive on the scene, knew he faced a fiendishly clever device as he examined the complex array of wires and circuits. But the bomb expert guiding him over the radio knew just what to do.

“Cut the green wire,” the expert commanded. The officer gingerly took the green wire between the jaws of his cutters and, squinting through the sweat that poured down his brow, began to squeeze. As the cutters bit through the insulation, the bomb expert’s voice crackled over the handset:

“But first …”

A fundamental mistake in how-to writing is giving instructions out of order. But there’s more to it than making sure step one comes before step two. Consider Mr. Birdhouse Builder, a reader of Birdhouse Monthly. Your article has just instructed him to nail the tiny shutters onto his split-level sparrow house—but you forgot to mention how long the nails should be. Mr. Builder has now inadvertently created a miniature iron maiden.

While it’s unlikely that the how-to articles (a.k.a. “service” pieces) you write are going to create life-or-death consequences, you don’t want to tick off any readers, either. Ticked-off readers mean ticked-off editors. In addition to getting first things first, a good how-to writer will:

  • write with authority
  • summarize information as the project progresses
  • give the reader a sense of what the project entails before she begins
  • provide a practical list of tools and materials
  • write succinct captions for photos or illustrations, if applicable.

    Service articles are a mainstay at many magazines (not to mention newspaper lifestyle sections), so developing a skill and flair for writing them can be a ticket to repeat assignments. Remember that you’re not writing for the ages here. The objectiveis clarity—but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring.


    It doesn’t matter whether you’re telling readers how to paint their toenails or how to write a will. An outline of your story, even a rough one, is a must. Mentally walk through the project and draft step-by-step instructions. You don’t want to write yourself into a corner.

    Not only should you write steps in order, but the reader must know you’re giving him instructions in order. Words such as when, then, now and next give him these cues (but don’t overdo it).

    Beware of unstated assumptions. Take this example from an issue of Brio, a magazine for teen girls. In an article on pressing and framing flowers, the author instructed readers to gather some old books (to press the petals) and take them to a field. So far, so good. The girls are in the field, and the writer has provided great step-by-step instructions for what to do after picking the flowers. But she forgot a key point. See if you can spot it:

    Turn the book sideways and start by placing the flowers in rows, with the stems pointing toward the outside edge. Gently close the book and place a heavy object on top. A couple of bricks will do. It will take up to two weeks for the pressing to be done.

    As written, readers have to lug bricks to the field with them and wait there for two weeks until the flowers are ready. An alert editor caught this problem and corrected it to read this way:

    Gently close the book. When you get back home, place a heavy object on top. Even a couple of bricks will work. Now leave the flowers alone—don’t even peek! The pressing will take two weeks.

    Lesson: Put yourself physically in the picture to make sure you don’t tell readers to do something unnecessary or have them commit an irreversible step in the wrong order.


    You’re the expert, and readers have turned to you for advice. Give it to them! Write in the imperative voice. Instead of saying, “You should grasp the stem,” say, “Grasp the stem and pull it out.”

    From time to time you’ll have to explain why something needs to be done: “Shake the colander until all water is drained from the pasta,” for example. This not only tells the reader what to do but why to do it. We wouldn’t want her standing there all day shaking her spaghetti.

    Include appropriate warnings, or alert the reader to wait a certain time before proceeding with the next step: “Do this in a well-ventilated room” or “Wait until the paint is completely dry before continuing.” Also, define terms that might be unfamiliar to readers, ideally in the narrative flow of a sentence: “Be sure to clean all paint from the ferrule, the metal clamp that fastens the bristles to the brush.” And use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, for when they’re important: “Grasp it tightly or else it will snap back at you.”

    To keep how-to copy from getting dull, have a little fun with your approach. Consider this example from Cindy Jacobs’ “Showdown at Clutter Corral,” an article from Single-Parent Family magazine. The goal is to tell readers how to unclutter their houses, but she establishes the scenario first using imagery from the Wild West:

    At the break of dawn, me and the boys faced the enemy head-on. … It was time for a showdown.

    I faced the closed door and swallowed hard. My gang stood behind me, ready for action. … Tucked in the stillness of the dark closet, I faced the enemy. I was up to my eyeballs in clutter.

    As she moves into the heart of the article, Jacobs follows the rules of strong how-to writing. Notice the strong verbs, easy-to-follow steps and, again, a touch of humor—just to make sure you’re paying attention:

    To find your clutter, grab a notebook and take a tour of your home. Step inside the door of each room and write down all the distracting, disorganized areas. Then write down drawers, closets and other areas hiding debris that you want to organize. Since you will be referring to this notebook periodically, make a point not to add it to one of the piles.


    You can slip out of the imperative voice every so often to give the reader an update on the state of his project: “By now, the two sides of the frame should be aligned at a perfect 90-degree angle,” or “You should now have three complete rows of blocks.” If the reader realizes he has only one side of the picture frame finished or his blocks form only two rows, he knows he’s messed up and can go back to correct it.

    Help the reader out in other ways, too. For instance, let her know what the project entails. “This project requires you to thread a needle three dozen times,” or “Before you’re finished, you’ll have painted 150 figurines.” She might say, “Forget that. It’s too much work.” If nothing else, you’ve provided fair warning.

    And you’ll need to provide a complete and detailed tools and materials list when appropriate. If you think such a list should be the first thing you do when writing how-to, think again.

    It’s better to wait until you’ve already written the body of the article, so you can consider exactly what the project involves. As you mentally walk through your article and draw up an outline, you might realize that only a three-sided widget puller will work for a particular step. That might not have occurred to you if you’d already thrown together a list of what you thought was necessary.

    It’s safe to assume that most readers have or can easily get something as common as a screwdriver or pair of scissors. But use your judgment and err on the side of telling too much. As for the three-sided widget puller, not only should you tell the reader what this is, but also where he can get one.


    Some things are pretty difficult to explain in words only. So it’s a good idea to provide illustration suggestions to the editor as you write the article. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. If done incorrectly, you’ll confuse the reader more than if you’d used words alone.

    In a craft article for Clubhouse Jr. magazine (for kids ages 4 to 8), the writer provides instructions for making a “woodsy” vase as a gift for Mom. (It involves fastening sticks to an empty jar and decorating the jar with raffia, corn and small seeds.) One photo illustrates Step 3 in the project. The description could’ve been written like this:

    Tuck sticks under both rubber bands, placing each stick as close as possible to its neighbors. [Photo shows child’s hands placing a stick between rubber bands. A few sticks are already in place. Show other materials such as raffia, corn or seeds on the tabletop next to the jar.]

    If you write captions for illustrations, they can repeat information contained in the body, but they’ll probably have to be short and to the point. As a rule of thumb, the first sentence of the caption should explain the action in the illustration. The only possible exception is to use the illustration to show actions that are too difficult to sum up in words.


    Now that the reader’s learned how to do something new, your ending can offer a pat on the back and remind her why this was a project worth undertaking. If you’ve framed the piece with some kind of metaphor (such as the “clutter corral” piece), come back to it to tie the story up neatly. Remember, nobody’s going to blow up if you write your how-to piece incorrectly. But with a smart plan up front, you can spare yourself the torture of wriggling out of a self-created writing trap.

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