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Writing 201: A How-To How-To

We all have something we can teach others. This week, dig into your bucket of expertise to pen an instructional post.

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Last week, we eased into longform writing by letting someone else — your interviewee — do most of the talking. This week, the spotlight is all on you: you’ll be writing an instructional piece.

I love turning to blogs when I want to learn something, because I know I can find instruction and personality. I might not search blogs when I need to fact-check a history report, but when I’m looking for a good lasagna recipe? I head for a blog, where I can get description and story along with measurement and method.

Time to teach your readers a thing or two.

Beyond the Bulleted List

If you write an instructional blog like a food or DIY blog and haven’t tried going beyond the how-to into narrative, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with people. Likewise, if you write a more narrative blog and haven’t tried to teach your readers something you’re great at — and we’re all great at something — you’re missing an opportunity to broaden what you can offer them.

A "what not to do" piece can be just as edifying as a piece that affirmatively explains something.

A “what not to do” piece can be just as edifying as a piece that affirmatively explains something.

We’re not asking you to write a simple list of steps, but to think bigger: how instructions can also tell a story, and how stories can instruct. I’ll explain.

I used to write a food blog. Most posts ended with a recipe. Before the tablespoons and temperatures, though, there was usually a long-ish post. (I’m wordy.) Rarely, it was about the recipe development, but more often it was stories about the ingredients, memories of food, thoughts on food blogging, or a range of tangentially-related topics woven together as a lead in for the recipe.

No matter what the topic, I got personal. Stories from my life. Opinions. Flights of fancy. My dreams and fears. Jokes. I tried to teach, but I also tried to maintain my voice throughout. An instructional post can be so much more than a list of procedures or a dry recitation of facts. It gives you an opportunity to draw a reader in; when you shade your instruction with the colors of your experiences and opinions, you create a richer reading experience.

Sometimes it was scary (“What if people don’t like me?”), but the risk was worth it: the best compliment I got was that reading my posts was like sitting down for a great conversation over a cup of coffee. I’d prefer a tumbler of gin, but that’s beside the point: my blog wasn’t just teaching people to cook, it was entertaining them. Creating an experience.

It was a win-win: When readers were emotionally invested, they were more likely to trust me and give the recipes a try at home. Likewise, when someone found my blog searching for a recipe and gave it a try, they were more likely to return and engage with my stories.

Don’t have an instructional blog? Think again.

The first step is to broaden the way you think about instructional posts. We don’t all blog on topics that lend themselves to lists of steps, nor do we all want to publish that. Luckily, an instructional post can be much, much more — and can be framed to fit just about any blog:

This is either terrible instruction, or hilarious instruction. Or both! An instructive piece can be do much more than a list of steps.

This is either terrible instruction, or hilarious instruction. Or both! An instructive piece can be do much more than a list of steps.

  • A traditional how-to with extra detail and background information woven throughout, like this post on making homemade mayonnaise.
  • A framework for doing something — like last week’s workshop on interviews.
  • A piece focused on a particular topic that uses an instructional framework to tell a larger story, like “How Not to Get Away with Murder,” a step-by-step look at a botched hit.
  • A satirical set of instructions, like these guidelines for putting a toddler to bed in 100 easy steps.
  • A fictional set of instructions, like this guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse.

Of course, your post doesn’t have to include a list of steps at all — you can teach us about something instead of how to do something. It can be something you have formal training in, or just something that flows from your experience. If you’re an MBA, teach us how you look at the stock market and the mistakes you think people make. If you’re a mechanic, explain what you think we should know about transmission maintenance, and talk about your favorite customer. If you’re a cat owner, teach us the secret trick you discovered to trimming Kitty’s nails scratch-free, and muse on life with cats.

An instructional post is endlessly malleable. It can take into account any kind of expertise and fit any kind of blog.

Putting your piece together

Got your focus? Great. Now, it’s time to outline the piece.

I like having at least a rough outline for writing a longer piece — I tend to go grade-school and start by sketching out a five-paragraph structure I can play with and expand on, but a simple outline can do the trick. If that’s not your style, feel free to think through these steps in your head and then put fingers to keyboard, or draw a flow chart of your ideas. However you like to organize your thoughts is just fine.

You don’t have to get too specific, but I encourage you to scribble down a few bullets points or ideas. At the very least, jot down all the steps in your instructions or key points in your description — nothing’s worse than getting to the end of the lasagna recipe and seeing that it doesn’t tell you what temperature the oven should be.

Remember, you’re the expert on whatever you’re teaching us, so you get to decide what’s important to cover. If you’re really not sure where to start, you can mix and match some of these — “X” is your topic:

Say my “X” is a recipe for lasagna (yes, I’m really into lasagna). I could write…

… the history of lasagna: a recipe for lasagna that delves into Italian food traditions.

… the definition of lasagna: a post pondering the philosophical question “what is lasagna?” (Is it the layers, or the pasta?)

… a story about lasagna-related experiences I’ve had: a post about my mother’s recipe, weaving in my family traditions, experiences. and memories.

… different options for making lasagna: a side-by-side comparison of three different kinds of lasagna, with a recipe for my favorite.

… a post about a larger issue, using lasagna as my focal point: a post about my approach to cooking, with a recipe to illustrate my ideas in a concrete way.

  • A explanation of why you’re teaching us about X.
  • Why X is important to you.
  • A history of X.
  • The story of an X-related experience you once had.
  • A description of why X is better than Y.
  • A explanation of why understanding X will make the reader’s life better.
  • Conventional wisdom — and exploration of how other people/the media/books/films have approached X.
  • Common misconceptions about X.
  • The definition of X.
  • Offbeat takes on X.
  • Different options for accomplishing or understanding X (with your conclusion, please!).
  • A post about a larger issue, using X as your focal point.

Some of these might require a bit of research. That’s fine, expected even; a few citations make your piece that much more trustworthy. For this workshop, though, I’d encourage you not to choose a topic that requires extensive research, so you can tackle the piece in the time we have. (Unless you want to! In that case, go to town.)

No matter how you decide to focus your piece, remember to maintain your voice and angle throughout. I don’t just want to learn how to decorate a bathroom, I want to learn it from you. No one else does it like you can, and that’s the point. That’s what makes it interesting, even if I don’t particularly care about my bathroom’s décor.

Now, write!

For longer or more complex pieces, it sometimes helps to shuffle the pieces of your post around — either by cutting and pasting, or by printing the post, cutting up the paragraphs, and literally shuffling them around on a table. Thinking through a post’s structure is great, but seeing it is even better.

You’ll want to hook us at the start of the piece and get us on board with caring about your topic. Use a personal story to create a connection. Make us laugh to lure us in. Present a startling fact, so that we need to know more. Then give us the overview of your topic and go through your supporting ideas, before wrapping up with either your instructions or your lesson. You can also explore jumping right into the instruction, and weaving the supporting ideas throughout — whatever feels right.

If you’re writing an instructional piece that includes a list of steps, you have opportunity there, too. Instructions need to be detailed and clear (photos are great here, too), but that doesn’t mean they have to be dry. Conor at One Man’s Meat could have written that step six in his chicken-and-pancetta pie recipe is to “stir vigorously.” Instead, he wrote:

Stir with a wooden spoon until the cartilage in your elbow wears down and starts to hurt.

If you’re worried that your longer instructional piece is too hard for readers to follow, take a look at these longform layout tips for creating structure and breathing space in your posts.

Ali didn’t just blend some garlic in her food processor, she “gave it a whaz.” Take every opportunity to inject your post with personality, and you’ll increase the odds that readers will take it to heart — that they’ll try your project, or get interested in learning more about your topic.

A brief postscript: who do you think you are?

It can be difficult to get an instructional piece or writing off the ground when we doubt our competence, especially if we typically write a personal blog rather than a topic-specific one. It’s distressingly easy to think, “Who am I to say that this is the right way to do X?” or “Sure, I care about this topic but it’s not like I have a PhD; who am I to teach others?”

After all that, I had to include a photo. And yes, or course I have a recipe.

After all that, I had to include a photo. And yes, of course I have a recipe.

The answer, of course, is that you’re you. And while it’s true that while you may not be competent to write the definitive guide to early 20th century Soviet politics or film noir camera techniques (or lasagna!), you can us teach what you think about politics or what elements you get excited about in film noir — or share your recipe.

So no second guessing yourself. Seriously. Knock that off, and get writing.

Lasagna pic by PoiseWinsTitles (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons. Other photos in the public domain.

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