The Corona Virus Has Made Teachers of Us All
Share your knowledge by writing a how-to article.
The Corona Virus has definitely turned the education world upside down. Teachers are looking for new online methods to communicate with their students. Parents are striving to deal with both the new technology and the children/students in their dining room/classroom.
And students are adjusting and adapting and becoming much more independent learners. Subsequently, as each one of us learns a new method or program or skill, we are often anxious to share that experience with others. Thus, we have all come to appreciate the importance of “how-to” writing.
How-to writing is generally referred to as “process analysis.” With a process-analysis essay, you’re basically teaching the reader to perform a particular task. This type of writing has become extremely popular through the years as evidenced by the large how-to sections in most bookstores and by the proliferation of how-to articles in many popular magazines.
In fact, how-to books have become so popular that The New York Times, in addition to its best-seller lists for fiction and nonfiction, also has a best-seller list for how-to books. If you decide to write a process-analysis essay, you should remember these six key guidelines.
First, choose a familiar task or a task you understand well. If given a choice, you should always write about something you know and love. The mistake some people make is they begin writing before they thoroughly understand their material. If you begin writing too soon, however, your writing may sound strained and stilted.
Under those circumstances, wait just a bit, study a bit more, and practice until you feel confident. Then, when you’re really ready, your passion and your knowledge will provide added strength and power to your essay.
Next, use the second-person point of view. The second-person point of view requires extensive use of the pronoun “you.” Since you’re teaching the reader to perform a particular task, you should write directly to the reader with phrases like the following: “You should use a thesaurus to find synonyms for overused words, but make sure you also use a dictionary to understand the exact meanings of those synonyms.” Note, too, that you don’t have to repeat the word “you” every time you give a direction. The word “you” is implied and understood in direct phrases such as, “Eat healthy foods, and get plenty of sleep.”
Third, find strong, specific verbs and precise nouns and adjectives. One of the biggest problems readers have with how-to writing is that the directions are not as clear as they should be. If, for example, the directions say, “move the part to adjust the water temperature,” those directions are not that effective.
A much better directive might say, “turn the red dial at the bottom of the hot-water heater to the right to increase the maximum water temperature and to the left to decrease the minimum water temperature.” The more details you can give your readers, the more likely you are to communicate effectively.
Then, simplify or explain unusual words and technical terms. If you saw a technical manual that told you to “find the URL and check the suffix,” would you know what to do? You might be confused if you didn’t already know that the “URL” is the abbreviation for “Uniform Resource Locator” which is an internet address, and the suffix is the ending to that address (such as .com; .edu; .org; or .gov).
Obviously, if you’re writing to a specialized audience of experienced computer users, they may understand your computer language, but if you’re writing to a general audience of computer beginners, you should simplify the terminology or add an appropriate explanation. If possible, you may also want to include illustrations to help your readers “see” what you’re writing about.
Fifth, use appropriate transitions. What’s wrong with the following directions? “Turn off your computer, but only after saving your file.” Obviously, an impulsive reader might quickly turn off his or her computer before reading the part about saving one’s file.
Thus, as you move your reader through the process you’re teaching, make sure to use appropriate transitions such as “first, second, and third” or “before, next, and after” among others. Regarding the previous example, a better phrasing of the directions follows: “First, save your file, and, next, turn off your computer.”
Finally, test your essay on another reader. Once you’ve finished writing your essay, you should give it to a reader to see if he or she can follow what you’ve written. Sometimes, writers of how-to essays know their subject so well that they skip over certain steps or details, or they assume too much knowledge on the reader’s part. If your reader struggles with your text in any way, that struggle may be a sign that the essay needs to be revised.
Two of the more popular sets of how-to books have titles such as Computers for Dummies or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Computers. While those titles may sound somewhat offensive to the readers, the titles do reflect a key concept behind how-to writing: Good how-to writing should be understandable to anyone, even those with very little knowledge of the task being explained.
Jim LaBate is a lifelong educator and writer. He has taught writing at both the high-school and college level, and he has self-published both fiction and nonfiction.