The Struggling Writer

The chronicles of a freelance writer as he tries to make a living.

Monday, May 28, 2007

How not to "how to"

I gleaned another nugget of writing wisdom from my recent flooring project, and that is the difficulty of finding decent instructions.

I spent a lot of time looking around the web for advice on how to install laminate flooring. I found quite a bit and it was helpful, but I consistently ran into the problem of steps that weren't well enough explained. For example, you have to use spacers to leave a gap between the floor and the wall to allow expansion. However not one how-to article mentioned how the heck to keep the little buggers from falling over all the time! Every person I've talked to who has done laminate flooring had the same problem. All of us ended up just not using the spacers and hoping for the best.

When writing instructions, it's tricky to know the level of your audience. In a case like this, it is likely that the person needs explanations of even simple concepts. These instructions are generally written by people with a lot of experience and they tend to omit things that have become second nature to them.

I'm not immune to this. Once I was training a couple of employees. I was explaining that they needed to click on the such-and-such icon to start the software. This one woman looked absolutely baffled until the other one leaned over and said, "Icons are the little pictures on your screen," and the light dawned. It never occurred to me to explain the term, but it's not like we come out of the womb knowing what "icon" means.

The whole point to writing for the web is hypertext. That means you can give basic instructions with links to in-dept explanations for each step, definitions of words and acronyms, pages of tips, lists of tools needed, and anything else you can think of. That's the whole point of hypertext.

Of course, I realize these articles aren't written with that in mind. These are probably the "I need someone to write 500 words on how to install laminate flooring" types of projects with no real attempt to make use of the strengths of the web.

It's the cool thing nowadays to trash Wikipedia, but that is a good example of a hypertext document done right. Every article contains link after link, embedded in the main text, to allow the reader to explore every angle of a subject. It's great, unless you get caught up on one of those stream-of-consciousness explorations while you are supposed to be researching an article.

In a perfect world, every how-to article would actually link to a massive database of information, allowing readers to decide for themselves the depth of explanation they need. Then again, Wikipedia works because it has several gazillion people working to maintain it and most sites don't have that level of support. Still, I would think some sites dedicated to home improvement (or any other subject) would set up a more heavily cross-linked database.


  • At 12:38 AM, Blogger Jennifer said…

    Hey, came from AW. In my web writing course in college...and also from just other web writing work I've done it seems that hypertext for instructions is counterproductive. People get nervous about linking away from one set of instructions to a whole new set of instructions. Plus all of those links are distracting and most people set web pages up incorrectly -- people get scared about linking away and not being able to get back.

    That said, I tend to agree that there should be some hypertext... but not tons because otherwise I just sort of feel like the writer did a poor job in the first place. Why can't I learn how to do something without having to click away.

    I do love links when it's about a topic I'm just plain interested in like music or green building.

    Just thought I'd weigh in. I do like your blog though -- nice casual style. Plus we have the same template! Go brown and orange!

    Take care

  • At 9:22 AM, Blogger Andy said…

    I hadn't thought about the technophobia angle. That's a good point. And yes, if every other word is hyperlinked it just gets annoying.

    I don't understand why you would feel lots of hyperlinks implies a poor job. For example, one step in installing laminate flooring is "Remove the baseboards." For anyone who's done that before, that's an easy step that doesn't require any elaboration. Someone inexperienced would need step by step instructions and tips such as cutting the paint, prying against a stud, putting a piece of scrap wood against to wall to avoid damage and so on. Putting those in the main instructions is a waste of time for anyone with experience.

    Maybe hyperlinking to a new page wouldn't be the best choice. Something like a "+" they can click on to expand the step into a series of substeps if desired, but then that involves invoking javascript or Flash and here is where I would need to start my rail against overdesigned web pages.

  • At 12:45 PM, Blogger Jennifer said…

    "I don't understand why you would feel lots of hyperlinks implies a poor job. For example, one step in installing laminate flooring is "Remove the baseboards." For anyone who's done that before, that's an easy step that doesn't require any elaboration."

    I suppose I feel this way because unless you know exactly who your readers are, you can't know what they know or what tech issues they have. I think a nice hypertext at the end like, "If you're aching for more info about baseboards click here" would be good. Like if I read a "How to query correctly" article on the web, I like to see point by point instructions with a hypertext close to the end that say, "so and so posted some more great information about queries here."

    I do feel differently if you have absolute clear knowledge of your readers. Like I specialize in health articles. When I write for a pub that caters to health care professionals I don't spell it out but I do need to spell it out and really define things for lay folks reading a consumer magazine.

    I agree about the over design issues. Clean and simple is best for sites I think -- more reader friendly.


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