Introduction: Write a Better Instructable!

Picture of Write a Better Instructable!

UPDATED: first, thanks to the Instructables moderator team for featuring my little Instructable here. But more thanks to our really cool community because the comments to this post are just as valuable as the original post itself. Because of those comments, I am making updates to this guide to try to integrate all the best practices being suggested in the comments. If you have some insight for improving the quality of Instructables, please leave it in the comments and I'll work to keep this Instructable current with the best Best Practices as suggested by the community.

Hi Instructables Family --

I've been a Pro member for less than a year as I write this, but I have been one of the judges in several contests since going Pro. What I have found there is a gigantic spirit of innovation wrapped up in a tiny package of Instructables which are heavy on the end product and very light on how to get there. In other words, many of you are great creators, but I can't follow in your footsteps because your instructions don't really explain how you get from a box full of materials to a spectacular finished product.

As a person who WANTS TO FOLLOW YOUR LEAD, and as a person who wants to ENJOY YOUR HOBBY WITH YOU, and as a JUDGE WHO WANTS TO SEE BETTER WINNERS to the contests, I'm writing this Instructable on HOW TO WRITE A BETTER INSTRUCTABLE ENTRY!


Based on a comment this Instructable received after posting, I wanted to say something that's critical really for anyone playing with us here at Instructables: no Instructable is perfect, and every Instructable can be improved in some way. That's not an excuse for writing unhelpful submissions: that's a way to see yourself as part of a community which is working together to do its best work. It also means that if you read this Instructable and its suggestions make sense to you, it's never too later to go back to your previous submissions and improve them for the sake of your readers and your own edification. The fact that I have been improving this Instructable as it has received feedback is evidence that sometimes the journey to write the manual for building your project can be just as rewarding and the project was in and of itself.


To understand your first job as an Instructables Instructor, look at my cover photo. Your first job is to come up with a compelling cover photo that represents what you are actually building in your post. While the one I used here is only moderately compelling, there is no question what the point of the instructions will be, right? It's easy for you to go and do the same.

If you are worried that you don't have the tools to add text over a a photo of your work, I am not here to sell you anything. I'm here to give you free advice and resources. If you go to this site, you can download and install the FREE GiMP Image editor and install it on your computer - Windows, Mac or Linux!

Step 1: Tools and Materials (1 of 2)

Picture of Tools and Materials (1 of 2)

As an author of Instructables, this may be the hardest step to really enjoy doing, but as a READER of Instructables, this step is always INVALUABLE to me. Giving your reader a clear idea of what he or she is getting themselves into is important because let's face it: we are all working inside a budget. So if I look at your cover photo and think your scale model of Doctor Who's Tardis is a great idea, but I don't find out until I'm in the middle of it that I need a $150 Arduino kit to run the lights and sound, I'll be greatly disappointed.

But this is a two-tier step because it's not just the raw materials the reader needs to know about: it's also the tools necessary to achieve the work you are yourself demonstrating. If the materials are a box of crayons and 6 sheets of paper but I need a hot glue gun I'm going to ruin by pressing the crayons through it as glue sticks, and I need a Silhouette Cameo programmable cutter to cut the paper into a kit of 3D model pieces, it's better to know right away that this project is not cheap if I don't have those things.

Step 2: Tools and Materials (2 of 2)

Picture of Tools and Materials (2 of 2)

So you need to make a list of tools:

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

and a list of materials:

  • A
  • B
  • C

If you are using a specific QTY of something, list it as "75 gizmos" or "150 kg balloon rubber." As an update to this advice, one of the commenters below made the valid observation that you can't take for granted who is going to read your Instructable. So for example, in the USA, we say "a stick of butter." It turns out that many non-US readers have never seen a "stick" of butter, but they do know what 1/4 lb is (or can convert it), and they also can probably figure out what 8 tablespoons of butter would look like. Help your readers out by giving standardized measures whenever possible.

The point here is that you are trying to give your reader some idea of the scope of work, the size of the budget, and of course a proper ingredients list. For the sake of clarity for your readers, you should include pictures of these items so they can find them if they have never seem them before. It would also be wildly generous of you to include links to parts which are specialty parts that you bought on-line.


PRO TIP #1: keep a notebook next to you when you are building stuff, and have one page which has two columns: TOOLS and MATERIALS. As you pick up something to use in the project, write it down in the notebook. Then, when you have to assemble this step in your Instructable, you have the two lists already.

PRO TIP #1A: I'll mention this below, but when you touch a tool or material, consider that you are starting a new step in your instructions. It may seem tedious to make more steps, but think about the person who has never done what you are doing before and what they may need for help when it comes to making your project.


PRO TIP #2: I'll talk more about this in a second, but the point of these lists is to help your readers do what you did -- using materials you used. To that end, showing pictures of the stuff you used is a big help. However: it's also most helpful to describe the tool or material so that users in different time zones and cultures can adapt to what's available locally. For example, I have used in the past Fabri-Tac fabric glue, and US brand of flexible but very strong fabric craft glue. Fabri-Tac is an acetone-based glue which dries with a rubbery finish. For my friends in the UK or Europe (or even the other side of the globe) It's probably useful not just to show a picture of Fabri-Tac, but to actually explain what kind of adhesive it is so they can find the local equivalent.

Step 3: Organizing Your Instructions

Picture of Organizing Your Instructions

I am certain there there is no one reading this Instructable who has never played with a box of Legos -- all of you have done it, and all of you have followed the instruction in the box with real joy. The brilliance of those instructions is that there are no words -- anyone can look at the pictures and assemble without any lectures. Because your project is probably not made with highly-engineered interlocking parts, you need to create a synergy between words and pictures to help your readers work our your project on their own. However: the brilliance of Lego instructions needs to be used as a lesson here. Lego instructions don't start someplace in the middle. They start at the necessary first step of preparation, show the assembly in the smallest discrete parts, and continue until a new starting place is necessary.

This looks like a lot of work, and let's be honest: it is a lot of work. It also may create Instructables which are 20 or 30 steps. But what occurs frequently is that a project has a great cover picture, and only 2 or 3 steps under the cover which cannot possibly yield the results the author with perfectly good intentions meant to give the reader. If you think the work is self-evident, ask yourself these questions:

  • did I use more than one tool to create this step of my work?
    • PRO TIP: remember the list you made in the last step? A good rule of thumb is that for every time you touch one of the tools or materials in that list, you should have a step in your instructions. Seriously.
  • Is there some kind of processing operation involved (soaking seeds, proper set up for gluing, aging or etching, inspection, etc.) in the middle of this part of the work?
  • Did I assemble more than one sub-assembly in this step? If I did, did I show pictures of each step and NUMBER THEM FOR CLARITY?
  • Is there a technique I used here (programming, gluing, welding, ironing, etc.) which I either learned from someone especially clever or learned by trial and error? Should I teach that technique before I show its result?
  • Was there any trial and error in making this step the obvious choice?
  • Am I literally assembling Legos or K'Nex pieces -- or any kind of prefabricated kit -- and if so, are my instructions comparable to the ones that came in the of of the original kit? Do I show enough steps for someone who wasn't sitting next to me to follow and recreate this work?
  • Am I translating an electrical schematic into a breadboard or a PCB? Could a novice follow my instructions?

Step 4: Adding Photos

Picture of Adding Photos

One real problem with a lot of Instructables is that they are very heavy in photos of the final product, and very light on photos of the intermediate steps. The fantastic final photo may show us your chops as a builder, but all those photos which span the gaps between "box of stuff I found in my garage" and "hydrogen powered replica classic Harley Chopper" are the proof that you are not just a skilled journeyman, but a true Instructor for Instructables.

Also: photos give the reader a sense of how much time and effort is involved in each step.

Step 5: Hit Publish and Good Luck!

Picture of Hit Publish and Good Luck!

Now, Look y'all: I realize this tutorial is only an intro and 4 steps -- but if every Instructable published after this one made these improvements, we might create a nation of mad innovators who were actually getting inspiration and satisfaction from following along and joining this community. Let's set our sights high to make our Instructables not only cool finished projects but also plans which others can follow along to get the same result

Good Luck!

Comments

CurtosNoirDesign (author)2015-06-04

Thank you thank you. I have been noticing this trend lately and I am so glad that you addressed it so elegantly. I truly hope this will help and inspire all of the makers on this site. I feel like you should republish this instructables every 6 months to help out all the newbies who are just starting out. Cheers and thanks for a great write up!

Saiyam (author)2015-06-04

I have been wondering since days that how are the instructables judged in contests. I have often seen instructables winning grand prize in big sponsored contests. When you look at it, you expect a well documented, good instructable but when you open it, that just contains five or six steps with a complete lack of instructions and images. This has also happened to me. I always take time to document, take pictures and write an instructable that contains at least 15-20 steps no matter how easy it is to make a project but when you get the results, its not worth that work. With time I realized that there is no need to make detailed instructables but I am still not sure if it is correct. However I can't complain as I have only published 5 instructables out of hich I have won one of the contests. I'm sure that you can answer this simple question. Sorry if it is too dumb. Good guide by the way.

TheFrankTurk (author)Saiyam2015-06-04

Two things to keep in mind in the "sponsored" contests: (1) The sponsor has a very loud voice in who ought to win that contest because the winner is actually an advertisement for the sponsor's product, and (2) because of (1), the judging rules are probably less obvious than they are in sponsored contests than with other contests.

But that said, it is often difficult to judge the other contests because the criteria for excellence (which I tried to capture here for others to follow) is frankly lacking in a lot of otherwise-great projects. I don't mean to say this to run anyone down, but it's very disappointing to find an instructable which has a cover photo of exactly the kind of thing I wanted to build only to find that it has only 2 steps listed after the title page, no bill of materials, and no help to do the parts which, frankly, I couldn't figure out for myself.

Jared_Sams (author)2016-07-26

Paint Dot Net is another free tool like GIMP.

jclimpson (author)2015-06-04

A tip I'd include is to avoid specifying tools/products by their localized names. Instead use only generic terms that readers in other regions/countries will understand.
I think some users forget that, although everyone on here is using the same language, we're not all in the same country. It's a hassle to go and Google terms just to understand what a poster is referring to.

TheFrankTurk (author)jclimpson2015-06-05

This is a great pointer, but it's also difficult to achieve I think because often the writer is not a world traveller. :-) But I'll add an update to try to capture what you mean here.

Omnivent (author)TheFrankTurk2015-06-13

Similar with measures (metric/imperial) - for the author to do the conversions and add both, it's only needed once, while for the readers, it will be once for each and every reader, so it's a good way to save collective time IMO.

Much harder and probably with no good solution, is when adding cost of a project, as prices vary so much - e.g. a particular integrated circuit I recently looked up would be US$3,- bought locally, while I could get 10 of them for US$2,- on eBay (from China, w. free shipment) and looking at different markets, I found that a lot of stuff doesn't scale proportionally with average income.

Thanks for posting this - I hope it will get some to go back over what they've already posted (although I'm not too optimistic here) and lift future instructables projects a bit.

Have a nice day ::)

TheFrankTurk (author)Omnivent2015-06-14

To prices and trying to list both Imperial and Metric, I think I agree: that's variable enough that there's no way to adequately do that for all time zones and regions. But: consistently doing it in either system at all is probably fundamental.

To the idea that sourcing is an issue, I also agree with that. I think that's why pictures and descriptions are more important than exact source and price -- but let's consider that if I say I'm using one kind of servo to build a dancing robot and I link to a source for that servo on-line, it at least gives the reader a full view of the specs of the item so that he or she can find a comparable local source.

I think the great pointer here is the idea that it's never too late to improve your instructable. For me, it's never too late to fix my spelling and grammar mistakes :-) and frankly it's never too late to add things which, in retrospect, would be more helpful after the fact. I'm going to update this in the main body.

beamerpook (author)2015-06-07

You did a lovely job of covering all the basics, but I'd like to add a couple of fine-tuning points:

One, it is very easy to take steps for granted, especially if it's something you have done often. Or that you've know it for so long, you assumed other people would know already. I found this out when my husband was flabbergasted that growing seeds took more work than throwing seeds on the ground and wait for it to rain. "Why all this soaking business, exactly?" I think was his reaction... So part of the solution is to find someone who is NOT into whatever it is that your Instructable is about, and see if it makes sense to THEM! However, for some hobbies, like machinery and robotics, to someone who is not familiar with it, it will probably all sound like gibberish, so you might need someone who is familiar enough to know the difference between Item X and Item Y, but is new enough to your project that they can see the obvious flaws.

Two, don't assume everyone is from your country, and thus know the oh-so-everyday things that you do. I saw a food Instructable the other day that called for a stick of butter. As an American, I know exactly what the author meant; however, the comment section were full of "What is a stick of butter" type comments. Apparently in other countries, butter does not come in 1/4 lb sticks, 4 to a package...

Lastly, get someone to proofread for basic grammar and spelling mistakes. There is a huge difference between people who are not native English speakers (mind you, I am one of them) and people who are just sloppy...

BTW, if you'd like to find out about seed soaking, here is the Instructable I mentioned:

https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Soak-and-Plant-ITTY-BITTY-Seeds/

TheFrankTurk (author)beamerpook2015-06-08

I like these additions. I think #1 is broadly covered in the "touch a tool" advice I gave in the tutorial, Step 3. How can I improve that advice given your feedback?
#2 is a huge issue for Instructables because we have readers from every time zone on the planet. I'm going to add a bit about "standard measures," and I'm going to look for a way to talk about better explain the problem with using (local) brand names, and find a better explanation for defining the Bill of materials by weights and measures.

beamerpook (author)TheFrankTurk2015-06-08

Get a fresh set of eyes to read it over before posting; because even though you KNOW you should list every step, it's still possible to skip one, and not notice it because you've been thinking and working on the project for hours and possibly days. Also the person might point out things you take for granted, like "clarified butter", or "orange zest".

One more thing is to mention substitutions. Sometimes using a higher or lower quality item is preferred, and definitely mention when it is NOT recommended, hopefully with a reason: "Don't use XYZ glue because it's not food safe."

beamerpook (author)beamerpook2015-06-11

This is hilarious, I found this on another site:

http://imgur.com/gallery/zP2E4uO

NirixDesigns (author)2015-06-06

Thanks for addressing this in a well written tutorial! I have had a tough time finding detailed enough tutorials lately, and I think a lot of people can learn from this and make their Instuctables even better!

Edbed (author)2015-06-04

Good tips

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