Digital content and development

8 Steps To Help You Create a How-To Guide

How-to guides are an important part of sharing complex skills, processes and valuable information to large audiences. They may appear in nearly every field, from art and craft projects to technology. Understanding how to write an effective how-to guide can help you successfully share your skills and experiences with readers seeking direction for various tasks. In this article, we discuss the definition and importance of how-to guides, the elements of effective how-to guides and offer a list of steps, tips and an example to help you create your own effective how-to guide.

A how-to guide is an informative piece of writing that describes a process from start to completion using a series of step-by-step instructions. Readers of how-to guides are often looking for information on how to complete a task. How-to guides may provide instruction for processes from several areas of interest, some of which include:

Why are how-to guides important?

How-to guides are an important way to share valuable information about processes, both simple and complex. They provide educational and skill development opportunities to their readers and may offer assistance during advanced procedures. Sometimes, they may include important safety information for high-risk or potentially dangerous tasks that can protect the wellbeing of their readers.

Clearly defined chronological steps

Effective how-to guides often contain clearly defined steps that are listed in chronological order. Often, these numbered steps include only one task per each. Steps that have a logical order of completion and contain individual tasks may be more helpful to readers than steps without chronological organization and multiple or complex actions.

Easy-to-understand instructions

It’s important that a reader easily understands each task within a step to ensure correct completion of the process. Effective how-to guides often have concise instructions that simplify a complex action into more manageable items for the reader to complete.

Examples and visual resources

Effective how-to guides may include examples and visual representation of their processes. This is a great way to include additional clarification and allows a reader to match the written instructions with visual resources or relatable examples, which could increase comprehension.

Writing a summary for a specific audience

If your guide is for a specific audience (like postgraduate students or staff who are personal tutors), it’s important to make clear who it’s for in the summary. Some summaries may need to be more explicit than others, for example:

Title: Applying to university after a break in studying
Summary: If you are age 21 or over, you are defined as a mature student. Find out how to apply to an undergraduate course and the different routes into higher education.

This is especially important if you have separate content items which have a similar topic but different audiences, for example, one guide for how a pregnant student can get support and another for how staff should support them:

Title: Getting advice if you are pregnant while studying
Summary: How we can support you if you are student having a baby, or you have a young child.

Title: Actions staff should take to support a pregnant student
Summary: What academic staff should do when they learn a student is pregnant, including how to assess need and make necessary adjustments.

In some cases, referring to your audience in the third person may be the clearest option. This is fine for the summary, as it can make search results more helpful, however you should avoid using the third person in the rest of the guide.

Things to remember when writing your Guide

  • write concise phrases (‘Select the option’, not ‘You should select the option’ or ‘The student should select the option’)
  • write in plain English to make your content as understandable as possible
  • structure your content so that the most important information is at the top
  • break content up into sections that are easy to read
  • use headings to structure the content and help users to navigate
  • consider breaking long sentences or paragraphs with a lot of information into bulleted lists
  • make sure your headings follow the same principles as when writing the title
  • make it absolutely clear when an action is required by the user (‘You must contact Student Services’ rather than ‘Contact Student Services’, ‘You must complete a form’ rather than ‘Complete a form’

The University’s style guide will help you make sure you’re using the same terminology, style and tone as the rest of the website. This is important so that website users can understand us easily through the consistency of our content.

Our formatting guide will help you create appropriate headers, links, lists and other formatting for your page. This is important because it makes the information we provide clearer to website users.

Consider Getting a Designer to Create Unique Visuals for Your Ultimate Guide

Design is critical to a thorough ultimate guide. While you want to include screenshots, graphs, and images for anything that lends itself to a visual, going a step further can bring even more traffic and growth to your site. For example, you could have a simple infographic designed for your guide – just like the one we designed, above!

Here’s another example. In one of Jon Morrow’s ultimate guides, a 3000-word blog that ranks in the top 10 of Google for how to become a freelance writer, he had a simple infographic designed and embedded that summed up several of the powerful statistics in the ultimate guide.

ultimate guide example

You can find awesome designers through resources like freelance platforms, LinkedIn profile searches for “freelance designer”, or you could talk to us about the custom blog header sets and ebooks we design for our content marketing clients as part of our content writing packages.

A True Ultimate Guide Requires Ultimate Editing & Tracking

It’s easy to assume that when you finish your ultimate guide, you may be fine with how it looks. But, how will you feel about it in a week? A month? A year? Remember – these are pages that will bring in millions of views over the years if optimized properly.

Our story about Unbounce is a perfect example. Such a piece kept getting clicks and circulated through content marketing circles across the globe. If your piece is to have that type of a lifespan and continue generating returns, you need to make sure it is updated regularly.

Luckily, if you’re learning how to create an ultimate guide on a particular topic, you probably already know that topic fairly well. Which means you’re also researching it constantly and keeping up on any changes to it.

If there are new developments, new studies, or any new changes at all, you should put them in your guide if they fit. I know what you’re thinking – what if a development happens and you aren’t able to find it quick enough?

With access to plenty of university repositories, this tool is fantastic for finding stats as they come out. The best part is you can set up an alert whenever new articles are published. You can also see which papers have cited which, so you’ll know if you’re bringing in a fresh perspective.


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