There is this story of a master blacksmith training his apprentice in his craft. He said, “I will hold this red-hot piece of iron on the anvil with these tongs; when I nod my head, hit it.” The apprentice did as he was told, and now he is the master blacksmith.
Giving instructions and following instructions are today a part of our daily life. Elaborate instructions are given in manuals that come with audio and video gadgets. The rise of the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture has added to the importance of clear, simple instructions. As a shareholder, you often get instructions from companies on how to fill out forms, how to make payments, and how to exercise options.
There are also oral instructions. Dial a service on your phone, and they begin with, “For English, press 1.” What happens after that would have amazed Alexander Graham Bell. On-screen instructions, too, can be found. “Press any key to continue” became something of a joke as people began to complain, “I can’t find the ‘any’ key”. This was added to when the computer said, “Keyboard not detected, press any key to continue.”
Not many academic courses in India include instructions in their syllabi. Yet, you come across specimens of instructions which are badly written, incomplete, jumbled-up, and dangerously ambiguous.
The first lesson in writing good instructions says: Put the verbs in the imperative form. The imperative is the form you use to ask someone to do something. The verb comes first in the sentence. Here are some examples: Shake well before use. Do not smoke inside the laboratory. Keep out of reach of children. When a series of instructions are given sequentially, you use numbered lists. Sometimes instructions are written in the passive form, using the verb “should be”. Example: The syringe should be discarded after a single use.
Bad instructions can be inconvenient if you have to retrace your steps after coming to a dead end. They can be costly if the equipment is damaged because of bad handling resulting from poor instructions. They can cause physical injury if safety notes are not included.
The numbered list can clearly indicate the sequence of the steps required. Before you set out to write instructions, be clear in your mind about the structure of the process you are dealing with. If the list of instructions is very long, say, you have more than a dozen of them, split them into shorter sections. A telephone manual has sections that tell you how to perform different tasks: storing numbers in its memory, recording greetings on an answering system, listening to messages recorded, erasing them. Sometimes minor instructions are nested within the major steps. Suitable indentation can be used to make them clear.
Like any other communication, instructions are written for particular audiences. It is important, therefore, to know who you are writing for. Do not assume that the user has prior knowledge of the steps required to be taken.
When an adept computer user explains to me how to burn a CD, I generally miss half of what he or she tells me. That is why some people believe that instructions should not be written by experts, as they know too much. The degree of technicality in the instructions depends on who you are writing for.
Instructions should be written in simple and clear language. Break the instructions into small steps. One instruction should be concerned with a single step. Combine only those that are very closely related and go together. Provide suitable headings to make things easier for the user. It is important to provide a list of the tools and instruments that should be within reach before you start the task. To find halfway through the process that you don’t have the right spanner can be frustrating.
In modern-day instructions, you can make use of graphics. Usually, the manual provides an illustration of the unit, say, a telephone or a DVD player, with numbered parts and with clear labels. In the instructions, there is repeated cross-referencing to these illustrations. Some instructions are best presented as flow charts.
In a set of instructions, the don’ts are as important as the dos. Example: Don’t keep your mobile phone close to a powerful magnet. A good set of instructions will alert the users on some possible problems. It is here that special notes are added. Depending on the seriousness of the consequences, they are labelled “warning”, “caution” or “danger”. These notes should be placed before the instruction they relate to.
If possible, it will be a good idea to test the instructions on a group of typical users. Observe them, and also get feedback from them. Note the points where they misinterpret or misunderstand the instructions. Revise the instructions to remove these glitches.
How would you rate the following instructions?
—If the baby doesn’t thrive on raw milk, boil it.
—Visit the city cemetery where famous Russian artists are buried daily except Friday.
—Flood warning: If this notice is under water, do not drive on bridge.
—(in safari park) Elephants please stay in your car.
—Do not swallow: in case of ingestion please call hospital.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org