Introduction: How to Write an Instructable
Instructables are the reason this site exists.
There are many ways of presenting your work here, and everybody finds their own style, but there are things that good instructables have in common, and that is the purpose of this Instructable.
Pay attention, there may be a test.
Step 1: Subject Matter
The first question from every new Instructabler is "what should I write about?"
The simple answer is... anything. If you have enough passion to create a project, then you have the passion to share it. You should preferably publish something original, but with tens of thousands of projects already published here, it's possible that somebody else has already had a go at your idea, even if you thought of it by yourself.
Don't let that put you off. It's quite likely that many people will prefer your style of writing, or find your instructions easier to follow.
You should use an Instructable to...
- Show us what you have made.
- Show us how you made something.
- Show us how to do something (demonstrate a skill, rather than produce an object).
- Show us somebody else's work (if you've found something cool online, start a forum topic).
- Try and sell us something without telling how to make our own.
- Post something inappropriate. "Inappropriate" is a hazy thing to define, but please remember that this site is used in schools. Generally, if you wouldn't show your teacher, don't publish it here.
Step 2: A Note on Language
Your Instructable will be seen by a great many people, potentially millions.
Its clarity and professionalism are a direct reflection on you as the author. Please use proper language when writing an Instructable; capitalize when necessary, use a spell checker such as the the add-ons available in Firefox, and be grammatically accurate. There is no rush to write an Instructable, so shortened forms of words,"u" and "ur" for example, are not acceptable.
English is the most common language of the Instructables community. However, Instructables are not required to be written in English.
If you choose to write in another language, please follow proper conventions and consider posting an English translation. It is becoming common practice to post a translated paragraph after a paragraph in your native language. Google Translate is a useful tool, but don't be afraid to ask other members for help with idioms and specialist terms.
We have a whole section of the forums devoted to language translations.
There are also "sister" sites to this one, using Chinese, German, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish, but you can also author on the main site in other languages. However, as for the use of English, please remember to use your chosen language as correctly as possible.
In a video, you will also want to consider your spoken language. Readers with English as a second language may have little difficulty translating your written words, being able to take their time with a dictionary or an automated translator, but it is much harder to translate the spoken word, especially if you cannot see moving lips, or if the speaker has a strong accent.
Consider using subtitles in videos, especially at technically important points, or adding a written transcript in the description of the video.
In all cases, better use of language makes for easier translation and greater understanding.
Step 3: What Kind of Instructable Should You Do?
If you're reading this, you're getting ready to write "an Instructable".
However, if you browse around the site, read past Instructables, or read the forums, you may find references to different kinds of Instructable:
The Step-by-Step Instructable
The original form of instructable and what you are reading now. Instructions in a step-by-step format, with a few photos to illustrate each step.
Some authors prefer the moving image, and it used to be possible to publish an instructable consisting mainly of a single video, supported by a thumbnail image and a few lines of text.
Slideshow or Photo Instructable
Just pictures, in a single step, with a line or two of text describing what you see. Thousands of each kind were written, utilising different tools for each, but the process has been streamlined to a single editor, but producing content that very much reflects the individual styles of our many authors
Now, though, we have just one editor, based on the preferred Step-by-Step format. You can still use it to write a Video or Photo style instructable, but you will quite likely have to be patient while they go through the filtering process.
Step 4: Photographs
Whatever kind of Instructable you want to publish, good images are absolutely vital.
Most of the time, the images will be photographs that you take yourself.
- Use a proper camera, rather than a low-resolution mobile phone or webcam, especially if you need close-ups.
- Make sure the subject is in focus.
- Make sure the subject fills the frame - use macro settings if you need to, or use a photo editor to crop empty space off the side of a photo.
- Try several angles - some details might be invisible from one side.
- Light the subject evenly. Daylight is brilliant, otherwise use desk-lamps to fill in shadows, or even think about making your own light-box.
- Keep it simple - a cluttered background detracts from the impact of an image, and even obscures important details. Make sure the background is a contrasting colour to the subject, to make the subject stand out.
- Take lots of photos - there is no limit to the number of photos you upload to your library, and you don't have to use them all. Try lots, from different angles, or in different poses. You can delete extra photos you don't need, but you might not be able to go back and take a photo you missed if, for instance, somebody asks for a clearer view of a particular step.
- Don't be afraid to tweak photos to make them clearer, just don't resort to outright fakery. The easiest way to edit your photos (such as cropping them to remove unwanted clutter) is to use the Pixlr editor built into the editor.
When you have taken your photos, go to your instructable, and click the camera icon at the top of the page. The photos you select will be uploaded and automatically linked to that instructable.
When the photos are uploaded, if you hover over the thumbnails you will be given the option to view or edit the photo. This will allow you to add notes to the photo, or to make use of the Pixlr photo editor.
Step 5: The Introduction
You need to be aware of the way your readers encounter your work.
The first things any reader sees of your work are the thumbnail and the title. Good titles are pithy, descriptive. You are familiar with your project, your family and friends are used to the various pet names you used for it. The rest of planet Earth have never heard of The Flashmobile, and care about the bad things you've done, so don't call your instructable "How I wasted three months and set fire to my garage", call it "How to Build an Electric Go Cart".
The thumbnail needs to show your finished work. It doesn't have to be the whole object (artful close-ups are fine), but it does need to be visually attractive, and clear to see in small sizes. Because of the shape of the thumbnails, use the Pixlr editor to crop it to approximately square. Bearing the way projects get shared through social media, you might also want to consider adding a title to the image itself (again, use the Pixlr editor).
- Good title: How to make a ### to help you ### for less than $###.
- Good title: Improve your ### by ### and ###.
- Bad title: The Widget by Username!
- Bad title: What everyone has been waiting for: the AWESOME PROJECT!!!!!
- Bad title: Yet Another ......
Select an image that shows off your finished project in its best light. Remember that the image will be seen first as a small thumbnail, so avoid clutter.
The introduction itself should be reasonably short, and doesn't need to include any details of how you made the project. Throw in a little history of how you came up with the project if you like. If the back-story is long, it might be worth a whole step to itself.
Assuming the thumbnail and title have persuaded your potential readers to click and start reading, the next thing they see is your introduction. In the introduction, you give a quick version of the story behind your project, and a quick summary of what you made. This is your last chance to entice any wavering readers, so take an extra few minutes to get it just right. The introduction is also the part of your instructable seen if your work is shared through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, so you might even try and get a hook into the first line or two.
For a particularly good introduction, have a look at this reading light project.
Step 6: The Other Steps
There is no hard-and-fast rule on what steps a step-by-step Instructable should include, because some steps can be merged together, but there are some areas you'll need to remember:
- Materials and tools.
You might want to highlight these as you go through the project, but it does no harm to provide a list up-front to help others get organised, especially if there are specialist or unusual items that need to be sourced in advance. You can also add links to specific suppliers if they do a special deal, or are hard to find.
Is there anything folk need to do before they start? Cover surfaces? Wash hands? Make something from another Instructable?
It's OK to assume that readers can use a pair of scissors without supervision, but maybe there is a tip specific to a particular tool or technique you mentioned, or possibly some of the materials you used can do dangerous things if used the wrong way. Consider your target audience - pay more attention to safety if your project is for younger people, or for others to follow with a group.
- Hints and tips.
Did you find a clever short-cut while you were making the object? Did you think of a better way to do it after the fact? Make sure you include that.
- Further ideas.
Having made your project, have you thought of ways that readers could take it further? Add those ideas, and see what people suggest as well.
There is no maximum number of steps for a step-by-step, and no minimum amount of writing for a single step. If you find yourself giving several sets of instructions in a single step, or if you found yourself stopping to three or four times to take photos of progress of a single step, then you ought to think about splitting that step up into more than one step.
Remember that what is obvious to you will not be so obvious to people who do not share your skills or background, so make sure you describe relatively trivial steps as well as the complicated ones. People who already know what to do can simply skim over that step, but people who need that information will be grateful.
Step 7: Layout and Presentation
In every Instructable, there are some guidelines that make your work easier to read.
Break up your writing. Large blocks of text on a glowing screen are hard to read, even for the most literate reader. Break up the text into paragraphs, and leave an empty line between each paragraph.
Explain long or unusual words. You know how to grunge your fringle, you've just done it, but a new reader wouldn't know a fringle if it chewed off his tonsils.
Use text formatting. Use the formatting tools available to add bullet points to lists, italicise important words, or otherwise make important points stand out. However, please, do not post the entire project in bold or BLOCK CAPITALS. It hurts our brains.
Step 8: Adding a Video
This isn't the place to teach you how to make a video, so I'll assume you've made it properly, made sure it's easy to see what's going on, paid attention to the sound, edited it carefully, and avoided using music tracks to which you have no legal rights.
Once you have your video, you need to upload it to a video hosting site. The two most commonly used here are Vimeo and YouTube, with the second far outnumbering the first.
Some authors like to put their entire work into video format.
That's fine, as far as it goes, but it is not the most helpful way to present an instructable. Videos cannot be printed out for later reference, tend to run faster than reality, and can be hard to access (most people on the planet still lack high-speed, fibre-optic connections to the internet). They also cannot be translated electronically, and accents cause even more issues.
All that being said, videos do have their place in an instructable. They can be used
- To give the edited highlights of the project (sort of like a trailer),
- To demonstrate techniques that are difficult to express in words (like awkward origami folds, or the precise point at which a cake mixture is ready for the next ingredients),
- To simply show the finished project in action, and prove it works.
As mentioned earlier, you ought to pay attention to your spoken language. Readers with English as a second language may have little difficulty translating your written words, being able to take their time with a dictionary or an automated translator, but it is much harder to translate the spoken word, especially if you cannot see moving lips, or if the speaker has a strong accent. Consider adding captions or subtitles to your video.
Just like photos, make sure the image is in focus and clear.
You can upload short videos as files, but it is easier to upload them to YouTube or Vimeo, and then embed them in your instructable. Embedding is easy; just paste or type in the URL (including the http://), and the instructables editor does the rest.
Step 9: Publishing!
There is no rule that you must finish your project at one sitting - that's what the "Save" button is for. Hit that, and the project will be saved in your list of Unpublished instructables, with a URL full of random letters.
You can use this URL to show other people a project in the works, and ask them for advice, comments or help before you actually publish it.
When you are ready to publish, hit the Publish tab at the top of the page. Don't forget to add some useful keywords (again, words like "cool", or "awesome" are not much use). Try words that are relevant to your project, so that people searching for something like yours will get a better chance to see it. It is often a good idea to include significant tools or materials in the keywords. For instance, if your instructable is "How to Make the World's Best Burrito", then include words like chilli and mexican in the keywords.
You also need to select a channel to publish your project in, and possibly choose an active contest to enter as well.
Step 10: Featuring!
The staff at Instructables know that writing a good Instructable takes work, so they like to reward members that do a good job.
A group of editors read published Instructables, and use a set of published guidelines to select projects to "feature". If your project is awesome enough to get featured, it gets higher views thanks to being included in the Editors' Picks lists, and you personally get a reward in the form of a three-month Pro membership.
So, I guess you'll be wanting a look at those guidelines?
Step 11: Sharing.
After you've published, you'll get a chance to publicise your work through popular social websites. If you use those sites, then you should take the chance to draw more readers into your project.
If you have included a video in a step, add a link to your project in the video description so that folk know where to find more information.
A number of projects have received large view-counts because they went viral through Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr, so it's an opportunity not to miss.
Step 12: Where Is It?
Usually, your project will be visible to other people within a few minutes.
Sometimes, though, it may get caught in the site's mysterious filters, that work to their own arcane criteria.
The filters are automatic, but they're cleared by humans, humans that live in California. During office hours, your project will probably clear the filters within a few minutes. If the office staff are in bed, it might take a few hours, but if it gets caught over the weekend, you will have to be patient until after the weekend.
Sometimes the system breaks down, though, so if you think your project has been hung in the filters too long, send an email to email@example.com, including the URL of the project in question.
Step 13: And Finally...
That's not everything you can do - there's collaboration, guides, and advanced trickery with HTML coding, but you've now got everything you need to publish a decent first Instructable.
Learn from the feedback you get, and you can only get better.
If you need help, though, there are lots of places to get it.
- The forums - if you need to chat about your problem with the wider membership.
- The clinic - if you want feedback about a specific project.
- The Language Forums - if you need help with translations.
- The Volunteers or the Community Team if your questions are more vague, or not directly related to a particular project.
- Or, if none of that works, you can always talk to the actual staff...
Oh, and I lied about the test...