WHEN INSTRUCTIONS ARE BAD…
I again find myself writing a set of instructions for a piece to appear in a bead magazine later this year. It can be such a frustrating process for ME – the writer. And that’s because I don’t want it to be a frustrating process for anyone else. This is not easy to do.
Because this is for a magazine, I have to considerably stream-line my instructions and diagrams. Often that means assuming the reader has some experience and understanding with certain techniques or certain materials. Sometimes this means leaving out some things which are thought to be “obvious”. And it means leaving out a lot of the “Why.” With this particular project, I don’t have space to explain why I chose FireLine rather than regular beading thread, though this was a critical choice to the success of the piece. I don’t have space to explain why I use peanut beads the way I do, though this too is critical for success. You could not substitute another bead for the peanut beads because this particular shape plays an important structural role in the piece. But no one reading the instructions will know this. There is no room allowed for explaining why I changed the right angle weave thread-path from the traditional approach. And I don’t have any space to detail all the inspirational factors and color theory choices which influenced my design. If someone knew these, they probably could do more than merely re-make my piece. They could make my piece their own.
Diagrams are often critical for understanding how to proceed. Hopefully not in this case, but with other magazine articles, the editors have taken five or more separate diagrams and combined them into one. Try following the thread paths and you get vertigo. You get a searing headache. You get Jackson Pollock’s version of bead weaving on a page.
It is difficult enough to write instructions without them getting edited down to 2 or 3 magazine pages. Some pointers I’ve learned for writing, at least, better instructions:
1) People learn in different ways. Some can read the text. Some need to look at a series of progressive images. Others are great at following diagrams. You need to be good at all three.
2) Include a picture of the finished piece.
3) Know how to begin the process. Include more details, images and diagrams related to beginning the process.
4) Write the steps logically and in order.
5) Keep each Step “short and simple”, and manageable.
6) Do not over-assume about your reader’s ability.
7) More problems occur for the reader when moving from one step to another, than accomplishing the particular step itself.
8) Provide encouragement along the way.
9) Show milestones and ways for people to track their progress.
10) Anticipate problems that might occur, or where your reader might get lost.
11) Pretest your instructions.
12) Clearly list all materials and tools needed. If some materials might be difficult or too pricey for someone to acquire, list substitutes.
13) If there are more than 7-10 steps to do, then categorize and group the steps into sets that are no longer than 7-10 steps.
14) Provide informational warnings so that people will be able to figure out if they have done something incorrectly or have started down the wrong track.
Instructions are often some of the worst-written documents you can find. Like me, you have probably had many infuriating experiences with badly written instructions.
The piece pictured was supposed to be a straight line of beadwork, to be connected into a consistently-sized tube. Our local bead group was making this piece, and 10 of 11 of us did it wrong. All our tubes started to look snake-like and crooked. These instructions jumped from Step 1 to Step 4, back to Step 2, then over to Step 9. They were full of contingencies – do Step 1 if such and such is happening, but Step 5 if something else is happening. Almost each step had its own set of footnotes. There were 25 Steps and only 2 diagrams summarizing all the steps, each illustrating about 15 separate thread paths.
PLEASE RESPOND AND POST:
A description of a bad experience you have had with a set of instructions. If you can, identify where the writer went wrong. Speculate what you think the writer could have done to improve your experience.