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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough CommunicationsTM

This is part of a series on why and how to write "how-to" articles about your hobby. If you've been reading the other articles, you have not only narrowed down a topic; you have also created lists of materials and steps. And you may even have collected a series of digital photographs and drawings that show the important points and stages. Whether you have no trouble putting "pen to paper," or whether you have trouble even getting started, with a little care you can put together an article that other folks will understand and find useful.

About Self-Editing - We have included some tips for self-editing, which you will find especially helpful if you are publishing the article yourself or sending someplace that will not have an editor. If the self-editing tips don't make sense or seem cumbersome, ignore them for now. But if you wind up doing a lot of writing, you'll learn that they save you time and trouble in the long run.

Work from the "Bottom Up"

If your high school English teacher was any good, he or she always told you to write the introduction to your essays last, after you had really ironed out what you were going to say. That principle is even more true with a "how-to" article. You start at the most basic level, listing your materials needed and writing out each step carefully. Once you have that done, everything else almost takes care of itself.

List of Materials

Hopefully, you paid attention, and maybe even started your list of materials and equipment needed while you were doing the project. Or maybe you even took a photo of the stuff before you started (as we suggested in our article on "Digital Photography for "How-To" Hobby Articles).

Now it's time to solidify that information. Here are some considerations while you're putting your list(s) together.

  • If you have a lot of materials and required equipment, you might want to break them down into separate lists.

  • Try to keep similar items together. For example, if you have three different kinds of glue and six different kinds of wood pieces, list the three glues and then the wood pieces, rather than going back and forth. The beauty of using a word processor is that it's easy to go back and add items, then to sort your items around if they need it.

  • Once you've put your list(s) of materials and equipment needed together, keep it/them handy while you go through the list of steps, in case you left something out.

  • Try to use consistent of nomenclature and abbreviations within each list. For example if you say "pounds" in one item, you shouldn't say .lbs in another item.

If You Are Your Own Editor - If you've done everything listed above, and you're submitting your article to a magazine or to a web site with an editor (like mine), the editor can usually do any tweaking that is needed. On the other hand, if you plan to send this article to most hobby web sites or to any weekly newspaper, you are probably the only editor your article will encounter. So if you want to make your lists a tad more useful (and professional), here are a few tips that touch on the most frequent problems.

  • Keep Your List Items in the Same Grammatical Structure - For item lists, it is usually possible to put the name of the item first, or if the number of items is important, with the number first. Avoid starting any "materials and equipment needed" line with verbs. If you have to add any information to an item, put that after you've named the item. English teachers call this parallelism. For example your first draft might say:

    • Elmer's or similar "white glue"
    • Two sheets of 8.5"x11" acid-free white bond paper
    • Brass craft brads, four
    • Have some paper towels on hand in case you get too much glue spread around

    A better way to present the same list might be:

    • Elmer's or similar "white glue"
    • Two sheets of 8.5"x11" acid-free white bond paper
    • Four craft brads
    • One roll of paper towels (in case you get too much glue spread around)

  • Address the Reader as a Person - As you can see by the last line in the list, there's nothing wrong with saying "you" or sounding a little "casual" in your writing. In fact, saying "you" once in a while is good when you're writing instructions. (See, I just did it myself.)

  • Avoid Word Omissions - One other thing to watch out for is leaving words out (the way they do on shampoo bottles and recipes). Some folks would write the same list this way:
    • One bottle Elmer's or similar "white glue"
    • Two sheets 8.5"x11" acid-free white bond paper
    • Four craft brads
    • One roll paper towels (in case too much glue spread around)

    By leaving out three "of"s and a few other words, this version saves seventeen letters and spaces compared to the list above. But it takes much longer to read and understand, because readers have to mentally sort out each phrase and insert the words that have been left out. Those little words like "a," "an," "the," "is," and "of" are actually tiny navigational aids that warn you what kind of word or idea you're going to encounter next. So they steer you through the sentence much more smoothly than if you have to read only the "big words," then figure out how they go together.

  • Consider Using Bullets Unless Sequence is Important - By the way, and this is far from critical, most professional writers use a numbered list only when the sequence is important. In a list of materials, it really doesn't matter whether you get the brads out of your desk before you get the Elmer's out of the pantry or vice versa. That's why you see those little round "bullets" in so many lists. If you're using a word processing program, you can type your whole list out, then hit a button that puts the bullets in for you. On the other hand, if you're using a typewriter or text editor, you can get by with putting hyphens where the bullets would go. Your editor will know what you mean.

List of Steps

As much as possible write the steps out the same way you would tell someone to do each task over the phone.
  • Use Second Person "Imperative." That means that the reader is the subject of the sentence, but you don't need to include the word "you" in most cases. As an example, "Do this" is an imperative sentence.

    The following list shows common "less-than optimum" ways to write directions:

    • "You glue the largest two pieces together by their flat sides."
    • "The largest two pieces are glued together by their flat sides."
    • "The craftsperson glues the largest two pieces together by their flat sides."

    The best way to say is usually something like:

    • "Glue the largest two pieces together by their flat sides."

  • Use Consistent Terminology. - For example don't call it "Superglue" in one step, "Crazy Glue" in another step, and "cyanoacrylate" in another step. Sometimes this means you'll have to come up with a name for a part just for the sake of this article. If it's a doohickey that doesn't ordinarily have a name, you may need to give it a name and define it, or even to show a picture of it so folks know which doohickey you mean. Then use that name consistently throughout the article.

  • Break Large Lists of Steps Into Logical Sections. - When I do this, I usually insert a "header" and a one-sentence introduction between the lists. Then I start the new list with "1" all over again. If you try to continue list numbering across a complex document, you're bound to hit a "glitch" somewhere.

  • Number Your Steps. - In a list of steps, the sequence usually is important, so you'll probably want to number your steps. Most word processors will do this for you automatically when you click the "numbered list" button or some such. But if you refer to a step by number, be certain that the numbers haven't changed since you wrote the reference.

  • Double Check Your Step Sequence. - When you're done with your list(s) of steps, go back through and
    • Mentally rehearse each step to make certain you didn't leave any steps out.
    • Note the equipment and materials used in each step to make certain you have it all listed.

If You Are Your Own Editor

  • Delete Sequence Words - Watch for adverbs and conjunctions of sequence like "first," "second," "next," and "then." You don't need them if your list is numbered - they're just taking up space.

  • Check for Words Left Out (like "a," "an," "the," and "of.")

  • Check for Parallelism in the first sentence of each step. Use the list of steps above as an example: "Use Second Person." "Break Large Lists of Steps Into Logical Sections." "Number Your Steps," and so on.

    If you have information to add to a step, put it in the second sentence of the step.

Write Your Conclusion and Introduction

The conclusion is a "transition" from the core subject matter of the article to the "real world." For a how-to article, a conclusion might involve suggestions for enhancing or using the project after it is completed. It might also include a "for more information" section with references to other resources. My conclusions almost always include a request to contact me with additions, corrections, and other suggestions. You might not be that brave, but I recommend it - reader feedback is always useful, even the small proportion that is critical. Don't embed your personal e-mail into the article, though, unless you like getting spam. As an editor, I have my authors tell readers to contact them through my site's contact page.

Write the introduction last of all. The introduction is the reverse of the conclusion - it transitions the reader from wherever they are (mentally) in the "real world" to the core subject matter of your article. Usually you can start with a broad statement that includes most readers, then use a series of slightly more specific statements to "steer" toward your content. Some articles use a compelling example or story to get the reader's attention. If you are "hung up" on how to structure your introduction, look at examples from the publisher you're initially targeting with this article.

Take A Break and Re-Read

Writing teachers call this a "cooling off" period. Put the article up for a day or two. Then print it out, take it someplace quiet away from where you wrote it, and read it with a colored pen in hand. Your biggest priority is factual accuracy. However, when you read your article on paper, all kinds of things will "jump out at you" that you didn't see at all on the computer screen.

If you need to make many changes, take another break when you're done. This time, you might print it out in another typeface (as long as it's easy to read) to help you keep "fresh eyes" on the material. For example, if you start out in Times Roman, proof the document a second time in Arial, or vice versa.

Get Someone Else Involved

Whether you're a beginner or a pro, have someone else look at your document before you send it off. Chances are they'll find something you'll be embarrassed for them to see. But you'd have been a lot more embarrassed if it was published that way for everyone to see.


Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, and criticisms, I remain,

Paul Race

Breakthrough Communications

For more information about writing about your hobby, please check out the following articles:

P.S. Enjoy your hobbies, but especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

Note: Breakthrough CommunicationsTM, Family Garden TrainsTM, Garden Train StoreTM, Big Christmas TrainsTM, BIG Indoor TrainsTM, BIG Train StoreTM, and Trains-N-TownsTM are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications ( All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.

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