Tuesday, 4 June 2013

How Do You Do How-to?

Lorraine Mace shows you how to write a how-to article

How-to articles open up a wide range of freelance opportunities. Trade, craft, cooking, children’s, gardening, arts and many other markets are crying out for well-written articles which teach their readers new skills, or fresh ways of making use of existing ones.

At first glance it might seem the easiest thing in the world to write a how-to, but unless you prepare well, you could find yourself writing in circles. You need to be able to explain the process in such a way that it is easy to duplicate, the instructions must follow a logical sequence and the right terminology be used for the readership. Above all, make sure that both you and your readers have fun. How-to doesn’t have to be boring.

What to write about
The beauty of a how-to article is that you get to write about topics that really interest you. Start by looking at your own hobbies and activities.

Have you …
  • Found an easier way to accomplish something that other enthusiasts could use?
  • Adapted a recipe?
  • Discovered a new way of dealing with plant cuttings?
  • Built a scale model?
  • Learned how to sole your own shoes?
  • Made clothes from scratch – or found an easy way to cut out patterns?

As you can see, the range of possible topics is wide. It’s simply a case of writing about what you know – and that is something that is hammered into all of us from the moment we decide to become writers.

This style of article, more than any other, requires you to let the editor know at query stage exactly why you feel qualified to write it. This doesn’t mean trotting out a long list of academic achievements (unless they are relevant) but if every room in your home is littered with matchstick versions of the Eiffel Tower, and your spouse threatens to leave unless you start destroying some of them, then you are most likely an expert on the building of these models and should tell the editor this (but don’t mention the spouse).

If illustrations are to be included (see section entitled: Picture this) you should mention this in your query letter.

Step by careful step
You need to tell your readers how to achieve their goal. Break the task down into steps. Make sure each step is easy to follow and that the instructions are not given out of order. Remember, you cannot mention anything that has not yet been covered – your reader could wind up with his corner piece glued to his widget. Choose your words carefully. Don’t suggest things; tell your readers what to do and when to do it. Important words to use are: now, next, when, then and after.

Sticky-back plastic and a toilet roll holder
Anyone who has ever watched Blue Peter will know about sticky-back plastic and toilet roll holders – for those who don’t know, think of clear adhesive tape and the cardboard inner tubes of toilet rolls, from which the clever people on Blue Peter can make anything from a jumbo jet to the houses of parliament.

The reason for mentioning it here is to remind you to make a list of the tools and materials your reader will need. Make sure these are mentioned ahead of step one in your instructions.

Do it yourself
The best way to write a set of how-to instructions is to carry out the task yourself and make notes as you go along. This way you will not forget to mention the size and number of various screws, nor will you omit an important detail such as needing a number nine doodi-wotsit to put on the end terminal thingy.

Which brings me neatly to terminology. If unfamiliar terms need to be explained, include a glossary, or make sure the explanation is covered in the text. For example, describing exactly what a number nine doodi-wotsit is (good luck with that one.) By the way, if a required item is only available through specialist shops, don’t forget to mention this important point next to the item on your tools and materials list.

From your notes, write up a full and complete set of instructions.

Occasionally, you might need to tell your reader what they should have achieved at that point. If a page of html code is supposed to bring up a row of singing daffodils, but either the flowers don’t sing, or they are upside down, it is better for your reader to realise his error and put it right before moving on to the next stage.

Additionally, from time to time, you will need to explain why something has to be done. Don’t assume that because it is commonsense, or obvious to you, that a beginner will know. If all the matchsticks need to be beheaded because, with the sulphur left in place, the Eiffel Tower would be a fire hazard – say so. You don’t want someone’s house to burn down because they were too lazy to cut the matches and hadn’t realised why the instruction had been given.

Picture this
Some things are too complex to explain easily in words and would benefit from diagrams, or illustrations of what an item should look like at different stages. When you write your article make side notes of everywhere you battled to find the right words for clarity. Then, when you complete the next part entitled Do it again (see, I’m following my own instructions here) you can take photographs or draw the diagrams required.

Your illustrations will need captions. These should be short and to the point. The information may be contained in the main body of the article, but a caption has a two-fold purpose. It saves the reader from the irritation of having to find the place in the article relating to the illustration and it can also include additional information – such as: hold grenade firmly before removing pin.

As already stated (but I’m saying it again for emphasis) if you are going to include graphics of any kind, make sure to mention that point in your query letter.

Do it again
The next step is possibly the most important of all. Follow your own instructions as if you have never carried out the task before. Don’t cut corners, even though you’ve done it a million times and could do it in your sleep – this is to make certain that a complete beginner can achieve a result without blowing up their computer, home or spouse. So, no matter how ridiculous it might feel, follow your own instructions to the letter.

What’s the point of a how-to?
At the end of a how-to article your reader should be able to do something new, or something familiar in an innovative way. It doesn’t have to be anything radical, or awe-inspiring, but it does have to bring a sense of accomplishment to the person who has acted on your article. If, after following instructions, a reader is able to sit back and say, wow, I did that, then you, as author, can pat yourself on the back and say, well done, me!

Not only that, the editor might say: well done! Please send more ideas.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer's ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (details on her website). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.

Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of crime/thriller, Bad Moon Rising.

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