Writing good tutorials is a specialized skill. Not only does it take technical expertise, but it also takes writing & communication skills, and a lot of patience. Not everyone is born a great tutorialist. In fact, I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am today when it comes to writing/recording tutorials. In this article I’ll explain how to write a good tutorial and give you some insight into my personal workflow as well.
Define Your Topic
The first thing you need to do when writing a tutorial is figure out what you’re going to write about. Tutorials are meant to teach someone how to do something, so make sure your readers/viewers walk away at the end having learned something. The learning objective is your number one priority when developing tutorials, and it should be clearly defined before the writing process is started.
Control the Scope
The most effective tutorials are the ones that teach you one thing and teach it completely and effectively. Narrow the scope of your tutorial as much as possible so that you can devote as much time and energy as you can into making sure that it’s coherent and engaging. For instance, you might be inclined to teach someone to use Photoshop’s Levels, Curves, and Camera Raw features within the same tutorial. Instead, break that down into three tutorials where you focus on each one of those features individually. A deep dive on a single topic is always better than scratching the surface of five or six.
Create an Outline
Outlines are an essential piece of the tutorial writing process. They allow you to roadmap where you’re going and what you’re going to teach to your reader. I break my tutorials into three basic chunks:
- Instructional Content
- Closing remarks
I write my tutorials in that order as well. By following this method I’m able to actually experience the flow of the tutorial as I’m writing it, and I can make any necessary adjustments to specific areas that don’t seem to fit. There have been several times when I’ve copied and pasted a paragraph from one of those blocks to another, simply because I thought the reader would find it confusing or that it might derail their learning process.
The intro is where I introduce myself and the topic that we’re going to cover. This is usually no more than a paragraph and always includes a sentence like “in this tutorial I’m going to show you…” or “in this movie we’ll be taking a look at…”. By doing this, you give the reader a clear definition of what he/she will learn by the end of the tutorial. You want this to excite them and get them eager to read or watch your tutorial. If you’re doing a video, show a version of the finished product on screen while you’re talking about it. If you’re writing a blog post, include the final product at the top of the page or immediately after the first paragraph. Again, we want to excite the viewer with what they’re going to accomplish.
The instructional content section is where the meat of the tutorial will be. This is where you break down the actual steps that it takes to accomplish whatever task it is that you’re teaching. Below I have several tips for how to write more compelling tutorials, and the bulk of those will apply to the instructional content area of your writing.
The closing remarks are the icing on the cake. Congratulate your reader/viewer on a job well done, and summarize what it is that they’ve just learned. This is also a great place to give them related articles or tutorials to check out in order to further their knowledge on a given subject as well as giving them links on how to contact you regarding questions or comments they may have.
NOTE: Always be accessible to your readers and answer questions and comments that they have. It’s basic customer service, but it really helps to build trust with your audience and keeps them coming back for more.
Write Multiple Drafts
I go through at least three drafts of every article I write, and even then, I’ll still go back and tweak things even after its been published. I don’t think anyone can really nail a blog post or tutorial on the first try. There’s always something that can be improved or expanded upon that will help your reader understand and relate to your post a little easier. Take the time to read each draft after you’ve written it. Print it out if that helps. I’ve done that more than a few times in order to give myself a different perspective on my writing.
Set the Tone Early
You’re writing a tutorial to help people solve a problem, so you should act accordingly. You should be confident in your approach, but not arrogant. Speak with conviction about areas in which you’re an expert, never be afraid to say “I don’t know” about areas in which you aren’t. People can smell b.s. a mile away, so don’t try to be something you’re not.
Your tutorials should be written in an easy-going, conversational style. You want people to feel as though you’re sitting next to them at the kitchen table, explaining how to do something. The worst tutorials are the ones that feel as though some almighty blowhard is bellowing out commands from their ivory tower. Just write like you’re talking to a friend, or better yet, your mother. You wouldn’t be mean or condescending to your mom, would you? Ok, then don’t do that to your readers!
Your language is very important when writing tutorials as well. Keep it simple and don’t try to use big words to make yourself sound smart. You’re already in a place of authority, so there’s no need to rub it in. Oftentimes using big words for the sake of using big words makes you sound less credible, so I’d just avoid that at all costs.
You should also try to inject humor when/where applicable. Recall a funny story, or tie the concept into a funny real-world scenario. People enjoy being able to relate to you on a personal level and they’ll also appreciate your ability not to take yourself so seriously.
Use Compelling Visuals
They say that pictures are worth a thousand words. If that’s the case, then you should be using a ton of those in your tutorials. Not only will this help you illustrate your point(s), but it’ll also stop you from having to write out each step in painstaking detail. Always make sure that you’re images are large enough to showcase what you’re doing, and if your blog or website doesn’t allow for big images, you should always make thumbnails into clickable links which access the original sized image.
If you’re doing tutorials about software, it’s a good idea to use highlights and annotations in your screenshots too. There are several apps that allow you to do this including: Skitch, Clarify, Ember, and SnagIt. All of these tools offer a variety of annotation and editing options that I thoroughly enjoy.
Tell Us Why, Not Just How
One of the biggest mistakes that amateur tutorialists make is that they do a really good job of telling someone how to do something, but they never actually tell them why they’re doing it. for example, if I’m teaching someone to write CSS, and I give them 10 lines of code to write, but I never tell them what that code is for or how it’s going to be used, the tutorial is essentially useless. I need to explain to them why I’m adding padding or why I’m putting -webkit in front of something. Otherwise you’re training them to copy what you do and not learn the underlying concept(s) that you’re teaching them.
After I walk away from reading a tutorial I should be able to A) do what the tutorial instructed me to do, and B) apply that knowledge easily to other projects I’m working on. I shouldn’t have to read/watch another tutorial to understand the practical application(s) for your tutorial that I just finished.
It takes a special kind of person to teach others and to teach them well. Most who do it, do it because they’re born with this talent. Others do it because they’re passionate about helping others achieve goals and reach knew heights. I’m one of the latter, and I’ve learned to become a better educator slowly but surely over the years using the techniques in this blog post. Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what it takes to write a good tutorial and a little bit more of the method behind my madness as well. Thanks for reading!