Teacher Notes on Instruction-Writing Exercises
Exercise 0: Guidelines used in the other exercises
Context for this case:
Introduce these guidelines by "touring" them with DNA-extraction
for Writing Good Instructions
- Are the steps presented in the order in which they are performed?
- Is the first step really the first task that someone in the audience
needs to do?
- Should a long or complex step be broken into smaller parts?
- Are all hidden steps made explicit?
- Is each step written as an overt command (beginning with an
- Are all steps easy to find and visually distinct?
- List format?
- Bullets or numbers needed?
- Is each step precise and complete enough to be followed?
- Includes needed details?
- Excludes irrelevant text?
- Are common problems covered?
- Safety/danger warnings?
- Troubleshooting tips?
Three Roles for These Guidelines
- Audience analysis.
The guidelines introduce the importance of writing for and helping
an audience that depends on what you say.
This concept will be new to many students, who expect to write only for
Reviewing the guidelines points out that technical texts (and especially
instructions) have real readers, that the readers need the writer's
help to do something, and that just what the writer says can
make a big difference in how helpful the instructions are.
- Reading Critically.
The guidelines help students learn to read critically by focusing
their attention on the specific features "at work" in real-life
instructions. Instructions are seldom drafted optimally the first
time, so reading instructions critically (other people's and one's own
as well) is crucial for good editing and self-editing.
The guidelines are a slightly formulaic but psychologically well grounded
look inside instructions to see what makes them helpful or unhelpful for
the readers that depend on them.
- Repair Techniques.
The guidelines provide students with an overt, shared repertoire of
techniques for repairing the flaws that they find in instructions.
offer goals to strive for in good instructions, and ways to improve
every weak step found.
the guidelines are a kind of loaned experience: they make explicit
for beginners what working professional writers know implicitly through
Giving a Guideline Tour
An easy, focused way to introduce each of these guidelines to
students is to "tour" through them using some authentic
laboratory instructions to illustrate how they work.
For example, Regina Bailey's 13-step process for extracting
DNA from human cheek cells, posted at
does this job nicely.
Many alternatives exist, but Bailey's instructions are
realistic yet simple enough to be workable in one period with
only ordinary supplies.
They provide great guideline cases:
I also like discussing this particular set of DNA instructions because,
as is often the case with science beyond school,
they easily illustrate some
significant flaws as well as the strengths noted above:
- Every Bailey step really is a command, with the verb first
to make clear what action to take next.
- The separate steps are clearly marked, even sequentially
- The steps include relevant detail needed to perform them,
without irrelevant distraction.
- Some steps (6 and 8) are really complex (they involve two
separate tasks each of which could be its own step).
- One step (3) is apparently not needed (its results are never
used later, so it could be omitted without harm).
- A missing step ("chill the alcohol," inserted between 8 and 9)
needs to be added for practical success (most DNA-extraction
instructions call for chilled alcohol).
I always introduce instruction-writing guidelines before, not
after, the exercises to which they apply. And I suggest explicitly
invoking them in every subsequent lesson. They tie the separate
exercises together: an easy way to review at the start of each lesson,
an overt focus for practice, and a shared evaluation standard.
I have even hung the guidelines in the classroom as a 3-by-4-foot
poster to provide visual continuity and a tangible resource for student
Comparison with Sue Mehlich
Many items in the guidelines here overlap with those that
Sue Mehlich includes
in her Technical Communication: Writing Instructions
(Perfection Learning, 1997, 32 pp.),
a short high-school technical writing text.
Mehlich's most relevant passages are the brief "Guidelines for Writing
Instructions" (p. 19, two thirds through the text) and
"Planning Strategies for Revising Instructions" (p. 25, almost at the
end of her text).
Her guidelines also include general writing issues (e.g., grammar) and
even graphics issues that fall outside the scope of instruction
I aim not for an all-purpose composing checklist, but rather for a way
to overtly share specific techniques with students for whom those
techniques are likely to be unfamiliar (or confusing if left implicit).
Guideline Commentary by Patricia Wright
Influential cognitive psychologist Particia Wright evaluated the helpfulness
of guidelines in "Chapter 4: Editing Policies and Procedures,"
pp. 63-96, in Thomas Duffy and Robert Waller (Eds.),
Designing Usable Texts (Academic Press, 1985).
Wright explored experimentally whether people who have difficulty
editing (including self-editing) lack relevant knowledge or lack the
ability to apply the knowledge that they have (80).
She performed a between-subjects experiment in which several dozen
people edited a 340-word passage with many known flaws. One group used
only general directions, while the second used six-point overt guidelines
for how to edit (81).
Those with the guidelines made almost twice as many editorial
corrections (8.8 versus 4.5, a statistically significant difference)
and were much more consistent (showed more intereditor agreement)
about which features to change (82).
Wright could not conclude whether it was lack of knowledge or failure
to apply it that the guidelines addressed (84), but she noted that
"editing skills seem very malleable" (83).
Guidelines are no magic bullet, but they do seem to promote just the
kind of behavior (more attention to text, more ideas for improvements,
more agreement about what to improve) that underperforming student
So I recommend guidelines as a reliable instructional aid.
Contact: T. R. Girill, firstname.lastname@example.org