Teacher Notes on Instruction Writing

Guidelines for Writing Good Instructions

Context for this case:

Other versions:


Introduce these guidelines by “touring” them with DNA-extraction instructions.

Guidelines 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 action verb)?
  • 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

  1. 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 their teacher. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Repair Techniques.
    The guidelines provide students with an overt, shared repertoire of techniques for repairing the flaws that they find in instructions. The guidelines offer goals to strive for in good instructions, and ways to improve every weak step found. Finally, the guidelines are a kind of loaned experience: they make explicit for beginners what working professional writers know implicitly through long practice.

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 8-step process for extracting DNA from human cheek cells, posted at http://iblog.dearbornschools.org/wachholz/wp-content/uploads/sites/1032/2017/02/extracting-dna-from-cheek-cells-1.doc does this job nicely. Many alternatives exist (some sets are really teacher instructions rather than for students, however), but Bailey’s instructions are realistic yet simple enough to be workable in one period with only ordinary supplies. They provide great guideline cases:

  • Every Bailey step really is a command, with the verb first to make clear what action to take next (some have descriptive prefaces, which you can point out).
  • The separate steps are clearly marked, even sequentially numbered.
  • The steps include relevant detail needed to perform them, without irrelevant distraction.
  • Some list items combine several steps, providing the opportunity for students to reorganize or simplify them for clarity.

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 writers.

Guideline Commentary by Patricia Wright

Influential cognitive psychologist Patricia 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 writers need. So I recommend guidelines as a reliable instructional aid.

Contact: T. R. Girill, trgirill@acm.org