Introduction: Write a Better Instructable!

About: I make things so you can make things. Out of stuff.

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)

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)

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

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

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!

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!