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How to Write a How-To Guide like a Subject Matter Expert

A how-to guide gives step-by-step directions for completing a task. Learn how to make a how-to guide easily with this article.‍

Introduction

Let’s talk how to how-to. 

How-to guides are necessary for teaching complex skills, procedures and tasks to a wide audience. You can find them in almost every industry, from technology to art and crafts projects.

A practical how-to guide has several key components, all of which we'll go over together. Then we’ll run through some how-tos of our own, with instructions, advice and an example to get you started. 

Why are how-to guides important?

How-to guides are an excellent tool for sharing knowledge on a wide range of tasks, from the most basic to the most complex.

Occasionally, they might also add critical health and safety advice for high-risk or possibly hazardous activities to protect the reader's well-being. 

If you search for “how to” on Google, you’ll find that people are searching for all sorts of guides.

For instance, a person might educate themselves on how to change a tire or troubleshoot an electrical problem. 

Basically, if you need to know how to do something, there’s probably a guide out there with the answer. 

Put together a "How to" Guide to:

  • Lay out a process in a step-by-step format that a user can follow to accomplish a task.
  • Provide instructions on how to use a specific piece of software or technology.
  • Share recipes, dance movies… you name it. 

Elements of effective how-to guides

Effective how-to guides have the following elements. 

Instructions are clear 

Effective how-to instructions frequently have steps arranged logically — such as numbered lists. Break down each step and separate them visually. 

Instructions are easy to follow

To guarantee they do the process correctly, the reader has to understand what to do. Effective how-to guides commonly use concrete instructions that break down a complicated task into smaller, more achievable steps.

They use illustrative examples and other graphic aids

Examples and visual representations are a must in how-to instructions. Not only do they break up the text and help maintain interest, but they also promote comprehension. 

How to write a how-to guide

1. Conduct research 

Each audience might need a different approach. For example, if you're writing a how-to guide for mechanics, you can dispense with some phrases and explanations because you believe the reader is already familiar with the subject.

When writing for the ordinary car owner, you'll need to avoid jargon and be descriptive enough for them to understand.

As a result, the first step in creating a how-to guide is ensuring that you know your audience and (of course) what you’re talking about

Research keywords to find out what people are searching for.

The best way to find related keywords and search terms is by using SEMrush or another SEO software program. A well-rounded essay that answers all of your readers' questions can help you rank higher on Google. You can also try finding alternative keywords that are less competitive and try to rank for them as a start.

Then, analyze the writing style of your competition.

Even if you're an expert on a subject, you still need to do some research. If you know the topic well, you might forget to write to your audience’s comprehension level. 

Always rely on your research to ensure you've included everything you need. Be thorough!

2. Recognize the difficulties and problems of your intended audience.

Find out what your target audience's problems are by checking out internet communities or internal, historical data. Frame your guide around what you find. 

Let’s say you wanted to write: "How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy"

Quora's "What is content marketing?" question is a good place to start researching. You can learn common questions, frustrations and knowledge gaps by simply reading the comments. 

Contact your research marketing team to identify prevalent problems or queries about "content marketing" in surveys or focus groups. 

Even though most of your audience claims they prioritize content marketing, they may not know how to accomplish it on a budget.

Qualitative research like this guarantees that your how-to guide tackles all critical issues on a specific subject.

3. When feasible, include screenshots to help your reader understand your instructions.

As we mentioned before, visuals are a must. 

Many people will use your how-to guide as a set of instructions. 

If they want to take screenshots on a Macbook, they need to be able to see the desktop. 

Make use of graphics and video to enhance your instructions whenever possible. Screenshot editor tools make adding screenshots to your guides easier than ever. 

Use bullet points and examples to make your document understandable when discussing less tactical or unclear subjects.

4. Tell the reader why they should care about the guide.

Ask yourself, "Why do my readers need this?" and make sure you have the answer. 

You can write with empathy when you have a clear idea of the topic's overall goal. You'll also be better able to satisfy your readers' expectations and requirements. 

What’s the point of your guide? What problems are you solving? Make sure you cover your bases. 

Writing your how-to guide

Be clear. How you write and organize your guide will directly impact how easy it is to understand. If a procedure is complicated, consider making several how-tos and using a process documentation tool to combine your guides. 

Write straight to the user.

Wherever feasible, begin each step with a verb. The active voice gets them in the right mindset and more directly dictates what to do. 

Take advantage of templates and automation

When designing the steps of your how-to guide, you may want to go online for templates to help you get your thoughts in order. 

Step-by-step guide templates are a helpful way to get started.

Or skip the manual effort altogether. Scribe is a how-to guide generator that turns any process into a doc, complete with text and screenshots. Simply turn on the extension or desktop app. Scribe works behind the scenes to document your workflow in real time. 

Scribes are easy to edit, share and embed in any blog or knowledge base

Don't stray from the subject at hand.

Sometimes when you’re dealing with complex information, you want to add some levity. There’s nothing wrong with throwing in a GIF or two, but make sure your instructions don’t get buried in memes. 

If you focus too much on making your content engaging, you might cause some misinterpretations.

Separate each step

Numbered or bulleted steps are the easiest way to show what to do and when. 

Use headers to identify the various steps of the process.

Are there several phases in your process? Use formatting to clearly outline the flow. 

Make your subheader an H2 or H3 font, and don’t add numbers. That way it’s clear what’s a section and what’s a step. 

Restart the number sequence after each subheading if a procedure breaks down into many phases.

Use visual media

Visual assets like screenshots or videos can enhance the written information. 

If you’re publishing a how-to blog, add relevant names, alt text and subtitles for an extra SEO boost. 

How-to guide best practices

  • Write direct sentences (e.g., "Select the choice," not "You should select the option" or "The student should select the option").
  • Make your writing as straightforward as possible by sticking to basic English.
  • Organize your steps to make sense to the end user.
  • Divide the text with headings and numbered lists.
  • Make sure your headers follow the same rules as the title. 
  • Make it obvious when a user should o take action (“Call Student Services” rather than “Contact Student Services,” “Fill out the form” rather than “Complete form”)

How-to guides attract a broad spectrum of readers with different skill levels in their respective fields.

People who desire to start a podcast may find "How to Create a Podcast" interesting. On the other hand, professional marketers likely want to know how to build a channel to acquire and convert leads for their business.

Write clearly (but never condescendingly) to keep most readers engaged, regardless of their skill level or background.

Finishing the Guide

  1. Review, review, review. Make sure your writing is error-free and straightforward. Try reading your steps backward or asking someone else to proofread.
  2. Put it into practice. Before distributing your how-to guide, run through the steps as if it were your first time. Perhaps you overlooked an obvious step, or the steps aren't listed in the correct order. Have someone else go through the tutorial and give input on how simple it is to follow, if possible.
  3. Publish the manual. Publish your guide after you’re satisfied with the final product. Put it up in your blog, add to your knowledge base or share it directly. 

Accessing your guide

When you're ready to publish your guide, you'll have to choose who has access. "Gating" access can secure privileged information and help with lead generation. 

Think about your audience. Is this strictly an internal document, or can it help develop your email marketing list? 

If you decide to restrict access to your guide, make sure that the process is simple. Don’t ask for more information than you need. Avoid asking for personal information (like a phone number) if your goal is to build an email list.

Example: The B2B How-To Guide

The guide "The Ultimate Guide to B2B Marketing in 2022," written by HubSpot, provides context-specific data on how B2B is wildly different than B2C marketing. 

The guide has been thoroughly resarched, and addresses all of the key aspects. Readers have the opportunity to get a free product marketing kit complete with templates free with the guide.

Scribe top tip: Think about the ebooks, PDFs, charts, Canva graphics and Google Sheets that you can generate as downloadable resources. Readers will value the opportunity to put what they've learned into practice instantly.

Make a how-to guide — fast

Creating a how-to guide will be a breeze if you stick to the fundamentals.

The best how-to guides address a specific issue only your intended audience faces. Create a guide that helps your audience, not just your company, develop. 

And now they’re easier than ever to create. Scribe is a step-by-step guide generator that creates how-tos in seconds. You’ll never have to copy and paste in another doc again. 

Simply turn on the extension or desktop app. Scribe works while you work to document your workflow, complete with text and screenshots. 

Ready to capitalize on the call for how-to guides? Signup for Scribe free today!