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Building Your Freelance Brand through Expert “How-To” Writing | Freelance Sprout | Find, Start, and Grow Your Dream Freelance Business
Read the six part series on creating a freelance business plan
 

Building Your Freelance Brand through Expert “How-To” Writing

Date April 9, 2008


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The purpose of “how-to” writing is to show a reader, step-by-step, how to accomplish something. The more you write, the more others will view you as an expert in your field.

The most important aspect of a how-to piece is giving readers a sense of direction. A story outline, even a rough one, is absolutely necessary.

A good how-to piece should be written…

  • with authority
  • with a summary of information as the project progresses
  • to give the reader a roadmap before she begins
  • to provide a list of tools and materials (if applicable)
  • with clear, succinct captions for photos or illustrations (if applicable)

Mentally walk through the project and draft step-by-step instructions. Not only must you give steps in order, you have to give your reader clues to that order. Words like “next”, “then”, and “now” should help your reader find his way from one instruction to the next.

One word of caution—don’t make any unstated assumptions. You’re writing in the first place because you know something your reader doesn’t. You’re the expert so you’ll understand the language of whatever it is you’re writing about.

Just don’t assume your reader will understand even the smallest of details. Put yourself physically in the picture to make sure you don’t tell readers to do something unnecessary or have them commit a permanent step in the wrong direction.

You’re the expert so give your readers what they want—advice! Write in an authoritative, command voice. At times it might also be necessary to tell the readers why they are about to do something. We all like to question when something doesn’t make sense. Anticipate the questions and answer them upfront.

Also make sure to include alerts that require a waiting period before continuing to the next step. We’re all anxious to finish something, especially if it’s something that excites us. Don’t ruin the outcome by not warning your reader that she’s supposed to wait a few hours (or days) before completing the final step.

Another important step is to define unfamiliar terms, ideally while you’re explaining the step. Don’t force readers to wonder what you’re talking about or—worse—point them to a glossary in the back of your material.

As your writing progresses, it’s important to give the reader an update on the state of what he’s completed: “By now, you should have registered your domain name and updated the nameservers,” or “You should now have 30 paragraphs ready to edit.”

If the reader notices that his progress doesn’t look anything like what you’ve explained, he has time to go back and finish or correct his mistakes.

If your how-to is complex, you might want to give your reader warning on what will be required. For instance, if your piece requires a reader to “thread a needle 36 times,” she might just say “forget it, it’s too much work.” If nothing else, you’ve given her fair warning.

It goes without saying, if your how-to requires anything beyond a person’s immediate reach, provide a list at the beginning. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at an instruction booklet only to realize that I should have performed a step with a piece of software I didn’t have—which was conveniently left out of the instructions.

Before you include your requirement list, make sure to include everything. The key is to find a balance between what someone needs and the “nice to have” items. In other words, don’t overwhelm your readers.

What to do when your project is difficult to explain with words? Use pictures. Take pictures using the same backgrounds and—if necessary—wear the same clothes if you’re planning on being the star.

What you don’t want to do is put together a collage of pictures that don’t look like they belong together. Also, make sure the picture captions describe what’s actually going on in the picture.

Now that your reader has learned how to do something new, your ending can offer a pat on the back and remind the reader why this was a project worth doing.

Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. No one will be too offended if you write your how-to piece incorrectly. But, with a smart plan up front, you can enlighten an provide a useful piece
someone can cut out and keep for years.

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Related posts:

  1. Marketing with e-Booklets
  2. 10 Types of Nonfiction Freelance Writing
  3. Warning Signs of Things To Avoid

2 Responses to “Building Your Freelance Brand through Expert “How-To” Writing”

  1. Maproom Systems said:

    Hello,

    I’m the creator of the photograph featured in this blog post. Please note that my images are covered by the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license, and due to the commercial nature of your site, your use of this image is therefore in violation of said license, and I am requesting its immediate removal.

    Thank you.

  2. Jerret said:

    Hi,

    I do apologize for the misunderstanding. This is not a commercial Website by any means. I don’t sell anything (services or otherwise) so I would assume it’s not commercial. But, I could be mistaken. Thanks and sorry for the mixup.

    -Jerret

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