One of the most difficult tasks — for me, at least — is teaching someone else how to do something. It’s a problem of assumptions, I think. When you know how to do something yourself, it’s easy to leave out important information when explaining it to another person. We assume some things are common knowledge when they’re not.
Despite this, I love writing tutorials. Once I figure something out, going back and documenting the process helps me understand what I did. And it’s always nice to hear from someone who says my post was exactly what they were looking for. It’s also a way to give back. I’ve gained so much from online tutorials that I feel obligated to write my own whenever I learn something.
And so, to encourage you to write more and better tutorials, here are a few tips for improving your how-tos.
Know Your Audience
This goes back to knowing whether your “common knowledge” is all that common. How much experience can you expect your readers to have with the topic? If you’ve been writing your blog for a while, you probably have a decent idea who your readers are from their comments and trackbacks. If you don’t, that’s ok too. It’s an opportunity for you to decide the audience you want. Do you want to attract people new to web design, people with some experience in building scale models, or maybe long-time crafters? The important thing is you know who you want to reach and stay with that level consistently throughout your post.
Split It Up
Of course, this is generally true for all blog posts, but it’s especially important when writing a how-to. Your tutorial will be easier to follow if it’s divided into logical sections or steps. Ideally, each step will be self-contained, and at the end of it the reader will reach a milestone. After each step the reader could potentially stop and have something whole but unfinished. They can then pick up later right where they left off. Not everything can be taught that way, but see how close you can get.
Show Your Work
There’s only so much that can be taught with plain text. Often, it’s far easier to show your readers what to do than to describe it. If you’re teaching programming, include snippets of code, and walk your visitors through what you’re doing. For more physical endeavors, like crafts, document each step with photos. Better yet, do a video or a screencast, so people won’t just know what you did, they’ll see how you did it.
Take That “Last Bite”
If you’ve ever watched a cooking show, you’ve seen it: The very last shot of the show is always the chef taking a big bite of whatever they just cooked. You can do the same thing with your tutorials. If you’re teaching something like web development, have a separate page with a demo of the technique you taught. For offline things, include a photo or video that shows what you made in use. This gives your reader confidence that what you built works as promised.
No matter how well you explain your process, there will likely be comments asking questions. Be prepared to answer questions about why it didn’t work for someone else and how one could do it slightly differently. Also be ready to defend why you did it the way you did. With any luck, those questions will inspire you to write a follow-up post.
And now, I want to learn from you. Do you write tutorials? What about? And what are your tips for writing useful how-to blog posts? Let us know in the comments.