How-To Article: Characteristics, Examples & Process

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Explaining how to do something, from changing a tire to acting on stage, is essentially describing a process. This lesson will provide characteristics and examples as well as guidelines for writing a how-to article.

Recognizing the Purpose

How-to articles have the express purpose of explaining how to do something that a reader needs to accomplish. This kind of writing may be informal, like instructions for a friend, or formal academic writing, such as instruction on a scientific experiment. In reality, any process that is described in written format qualifies as how-to writing.

The Rhetorical Situation

In any type of writing, it is important to first evaluate the rhetorical situation. This term might sound impressive, but it simply means why are you writing this particular text at this particular time? If you, as a writer, are attempting to tell the reader how to do something, you need to be quite certain about the occasion for writing. What does the reader need from you?

A Specific Event

One example of a very specific need for instruction is the occasion of having a flat tire on the highway.

An Occasion for Specific Instructions
Tire Change

Let's look at a possible situation involving immediate need for instruction. Let's say your friend is on a road trip and experiences a sudden and unexpected tire blow-out. Of course, many people are quite capable of changing their own flat tire, putting on a spare, and continuing on down the road.

But this is not the case for everyone. If your friend has no experience with changing a tire, he or she will appreciate clear, step-by step instructions emailed from a more mechanically-inclined writer: you.

Before you write these how-to instructions, get firmly in your mind the idea that this person does not have the same terminology or frame of reference for the tools and parts of the car that you may mention. In this case, you need to be very specific and give detailed explanations and definitions. Try to anticipate any questions the reader might have.

A Less Stressful Example

Let's look now at an example of how-to writing that fits in a different situation than the previous one. Many people use recipes every day to make sure their cooking or baking comes out as expected. One of the big differences in a recipe and written directions for a particular person about changing a car tire is the level of individualizing.

Recipes are generally written without much knowledge about the reader and his/her previous knowledge about the cooking process. If a recipe reader wants to make a certain type of meal, the person will usually look for a recipe that is close to the desired dish and then make substitutions or alterations.

Basic Pasta Dish
Pasta Dish

Although each reader will generally make some adjustments for personal taste, it is quite important that the writer stick to the accurate chronological order of the process steps. A slight diversion from the steps in the process can ruin a recipe! And, of course, cooking times are extremely important; the reader needs to know how long each step will take as well as the total cooking time to prepare the dish. Be sure to include indicators of when a particular step in the process is complete.

A More Complex Example

In some cases, the explanation of how to do something is quite complex and multi-faceted. Let's say you want to get a guidebook for how to portray a fictional character on the stage.

How to Portray an On-stage Character
How to Play a Part

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