17 – Instructions

Common Sections in Instructions

Suzan Last; David McMurrey; and Claire Carly-Miles

The following is a review of the sections you’ll commonly find in instructions. As you read through these, keep in mind that they may or may not appear in the actual instructions you’ll write; they may or may not occur in the order presented here; and they won’t necessarily be the only sections possible in a set of instructions.

A Set of Instructions Often Includes These Common Sections

Carefully plan how to begin your instructions. Your introduction might do any of the following (but not necessarily in this order):

  • Indicate the specific tasks or procedure to be explained, as well as the scope (what will and will not be covered).
  • Indicate what the audience needs in terms of knowledge and background to understand the instructions.
  • Give a general idea of the procedure and what it accomplishes.
  • Indicate the conditions when these instructions should (or should not) be used.
  • Give an overview of the contents of the instructions.

General Warnings, Caution, Danger Notices
Instructions often must alert readers to the possibility of ruining their equipment, incorrectly performing the procedure, and hurting themselves. Also, instructions must often emphasize key points or exceptions. For these situations, you use special signifiers—note, warning, caution, and danger notices.

Technical Background or Theory
At the beginning of certain kinds of instructions (after the introduction), you may need a discussion of background related to the procedure. For certain instructions, this background is critical—otherwise, the steps in the procedure make no sense. For example, you may have had some experience with trying to choose a color by moving a selector around a color wheel. To really understand what you’re doing, you need to have some background knowledge on color theory. Similarly, you can imagine that, for certain instructions using cameras, some theory might be needed as well.

Equipment and Supplies
Notice that most instructions include a list of the things you need to gather before you start the procedure. This includes equipment, the tools you’ll use in the procedure (such as mixing bowls, spoons, bread pans, hammers, drills, and saws), and supplies, the things that are consumed in the procedure (such as wood, paint, oil, flour, and nails). In instructions, these items typically are listed either in a simple vertical list or in a two-column list. Use the two-column list if you need to add some specifications to some or all of the items—for example, brand names, sizes, amounts, types, model numbers, and so on.

Structure and Format
Most step-by-step sets of instructions are formatted as vertical numbered lists. However, this option is not the only choice. There are some variations, as well as some other considerations:

Fixed-order steps are steps that must be performed in the order presented. For example, if you are changing the oil in a car, draining the oil is a step that must come before putting in the new oil. These steps are usually presented in vertical numbered lists.

Variable-order steps are steps that can be performed in practically any order. Good examples are troubleshooting guides that tell you to check this or check that when you are trying to fix something. You can do these kinds of steps in practically any order. With this structure, the bulleted list is the appropriate format.

Alternate steps are those in which two or more ways to accomplish the same thing are presented. Alternate steps are also used when various conditions might exist. Use bulleted lists with this type, either with “OR” inserted between the alternatives, or the lead-in indicating that alternatives are about to be presented.

Nested steps may be used in cases when individual steps within a procedure are rather complex in their own right and need to be broken down into sub-steps. In this case, you indent further and sequence the sub-steps as a, b, c, and so on.

“Stepless” instructions can be used when you cannot use vertical numbered lists or provide straightforward instructional-style directing of the reader. Some situations may be so generalized or so variable that steps cannot be stated.

Supplementary Discussion
Often, it is not enough simply to tell readers to do something. They need additional explanatory information, such as how the thing should look before and after the step, why they should care about doing a particular step, or what mechanical principle is behind what they are doing. Some readers may require even more micro-level explanation of the step, including a discussion of the specific actions that make up the step.

The problem with supplementary discussion, however, is that it can hide the actual steps. You want the steps—the specific actions the reader must take—to stand out. You don’t want it all buried in a heap of words. There are at least two techniques to avoid this problem: 1) you can split the instruction from the supplement by using separate paragraphs, or 2) you can bold the instruction.

This text was derived from

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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