The irony doesn't escape me that I'm currently writing a how-to guide on … how-to guides.
Fortunately, I've had my fair share of experiences writing how-to guides for HubSpot over the years — some of my favorites include How to Give a Persuasive Presentation, How to Develop a Content Strategy: A Start-to-Finish Guide, and How to Write a Request for Proposal.
Here, we'll explore the right structure to use when making a how-to guide and how to write a comprehensive how-to guide. We'll also take a look at some impressive examples of how-to guides for inspiration. Let's dive in.
You can keep reading or click one of the links below to jump to the section you’re looking for:
- What is a how-to guide?
- How to Make a How-to Guide
- How to Write a How-to Guide
- Publishing a How-to Guide
- Tips for Effective How-to Guides
- How-to Guide Examples
What is a how-to guide?
A how-to guide gives step-by-step instructions on a process from start to finish. How-to guides can also offer best practices, show examples of ideal outcomes, or offer trends and insights on guide topics.
Why Creating a How-to Guide Is Important
How-to guides make it simple for people to learn new skills and understand how things work. They're also helpful when getting to know a new tool, app, or device.
Today people have more access to information than ever before. That can have a big impact on businesses. Customers want self-service options that are easy to use and understand. A well-crafted how-to guide can:
- Support curious and frustrated customers
- Offer 24/7 access to help
- Engage readers
- Anticipate user needs
How-to guides are also valuable opportunities to reach new audiences with useful, high-quality content. For both B2B and B2C businesses, how-to guides are often necessary for a healthy lead generation strategy.
For instance, consider how many people search "How to …" on Google each day:
These search queries demonstrate one of the primary reasons people turn to the internet: to learn how to do something.
If your business can reach those consumers with informative, relevant answers to their questions, those users will begin to see your brand as an authority on the topic.
Down the road, those same readers you first attracted with a how-to guide could become customers and loyal brand advocates who spread the word about your products or services.
It's clear that how-to guides make it easy to meet high expectations while sharing valuable information. But it's not easy to make a great how-to.
How to Make a How-to Guide
- Understand your target audience.
- Research your topic thoroughly.
- Create a step-by-step outline.
- Add useful images, videos, and descriptions.
- Save screenshots as you go.
- Review your outline and research from the reader's point of view.
- Link to other resources.
1. Understand your target audience.
It's easy to write instructions for a person who's familiar with a process. This is because they only need to be reminded of what they already know.
But most people who seek out how-to guides are beginners. This means that when you're writing a how-to guide you should be an expert in the topic. At the same time, you should also be able to see the topic from a beginner's perspective.
Most how-to guides choose a starting point, and this means you'll have to make an educated guess about where to start.
For example, if you're writing instructions on how to use a specific app, you probably wouldn't make your first step turning on the computer. Instead, you would begin from the most logical place your average user should start.
But until you know your target audience, it will be difficult to decide on that first step. Your target audience is a group of your ideal users. They will have similar habits and ideas that connect them. And the better you get to know this audience, the easier it will be to make a how-to guide that they'll love.
For this step, start with online community forums like Quora or feedback from your community to figure out the top concerns or challenges your target audience might have. That information will help you figure out what content to include in your guide.
For instance, if you're writing "How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy," for instance, you could follow these steps:
- Start by looking at responses to "What is content marketing?" on Quora and other online forums. These user-generated responses can help you identify common themes, misconceptions, or confusion around content marketing.
- Contact your network for common pain points about content marketing. For example, you might find that most of your audience says content marketing is a priority for them — but they don't know how to do it on a budget.
This research will give you the information you need to create a how-to guide that addresses relevant concerns about your topic. The video below is an example of a how-to guide for content marketing that addresses specific audience pain points:
2. Research your topic thoroughly.
Your first step in how to make a how-to guide is making sure your guide is comprehensive.
Even if you know a topic incredibly well, research isn't a step you should skip. In fact, knowing a topic well can make it more difficult to write a how-to guide on the topic, as you might make assumptions about what to cover.
So, follow this full list of steps for your research.
- If you're already familiar with the process you're talking about, write down your best recall of the steps from memory.
- Follow your instructions, and take notes as you follow the steps. This will help you fill in the steps you missed.
- Conduct keyword research to see the words that people who want to learn this skill use to search for instructions.
- Use Ahrefs, SEMrush, or another SEO tool to find more similar keywords and queries. This can help you create a well-rounded piece that will answer all your readers' questions, and help you rank on Google.
- Look at your competitors to see how they write their guides.
- Seek out expert opinions, popular books, and other resources that can give you details to make your how-to guide stand out.
For instance, let's say you're writing a blog post, "How to Make an Omelette." Upon conducting research, you find Simply Recipe's post at the top of Google search.
Diving into the post, you'll see Simply Recipe has sections including:
- French Vs. American Omelettes
- The Best Pan for Making Omelettes
- Ideas for Omelette Fillings
If you want to create your own how-to guide on omelets, then, you'll want to cover all – if not more – than what Simply Recipe has in its post.
As you research, don’t forget to fact-check your sources. You want to make sure that your guide is trustworthy and won’t cause legal or other challenges for you later.
3. Create a step-by-step outline.
Now that you've done your research, it's time to organize your ideas. First, pull together your initial list of steps with any new ideas you learned during your research.
Next, create a step-by-step outline for your guide. This will mean making decisions that can impact how well the reader understands each step.
For instance, if you're writing, "How to Take a Screenshot on a Mac," you'll write down each specific action necessary to take a screenshot. But according to this how-to guide, there are four different ways you can create a screenshot on a Mac. So, the right instructions for the user will depend on what computer and operating system they're on.
You'll need to decide on the best time to introduce that extra information to your readers. Your readers will bounce from your page if it's too difficult for them to find the answer to their question. So, your outline can help you deliver your steps as quickly as possible — and in the right order.
Many readers will also use your how-to guide as a list of instructions. This means that you may need to revise your outline several times to make sure that each step in your outline is clear and easy to follow.
4. Add useful images, videos, and descriptions.
When possible, use visuals like GIFs, images, screenshots, and videos to supplement your instructions. While it can be fun to add images just for fun, the best images to include will be useful and make your instructions clearer and quicker to understand.
If you’re not sure what kind of images to include, run through the instructions in your outline. Does it make sense to take a screenshot for each step? Are there specific materials you want your reader to use? Is there a process that isn’t easy to understand without seeing it happen?
For example, in the technical competitions of the Great British Bake Off, bakers are often asked to bake recipes that they’ve never seen before. If a baker isn’t sure what the final product should look like, they have to rely on the instructions to get it right.
If they read too fast or the instructions can be interpreted in more than one way, they often get it wrong. This is a good example of what can happen when a user can’t picture what they’re supposed to do. You can use images and videos to help avoid this confusion.
Try to gather images and videos as you research so that you have more than you need when it’s time to start putting together your how-to guide.
5. Review your outline and research from the reader's point of view.
The last step in writing a how-to guide is asking yourself: "Why do my readers need, or want to know, this?"
Understanding the high-level purpose behind a topic can encourage you to write with empathy. Additionally, it will help you create content that accurately meets your reader's expectations and needs.
For instance, when writing "How to Create a Facebook Group for Your Business," I took some time to learn that readers might search this topic if:
- They are seeking out new ways to connect with customers
- They want to create a stronger sense of brand community
- They want to raise awareness about their products or services
As a result, I wrote:
"A group is a good idea if you're interested in connecting your customers or leads to one another, you want to facilitate a sense of community surrounding your brand, or you're hoping to showcase your brand as a thought leader in the industry. However, a group is not a good idea if you want to use it to raise awareness about your products or services, or simply use it to post company announcements."
In the example above, you can see I targeted a few different segments of readers with diverse purposes to help readers determine whether this how-to guide would even help them meet their own goals.
Ultimately, understanding the purpose behind your how-to guide is critical for ensuring you target all the various components or angles of the topic at hand.
6. Link to other resources.
It's also a good idea to point readers to other useful resources in case they'd like to learn more. Link out to other relevant blog posts, pillar pages, or ebooks so readers can find follow-up information on topics mentioned in your how-to guide.
As you link resources, be sure to cite the original source whenever you can. This is another way to build trust and authority with your audience.
How to Write a How-to Guide
Once you're ready to start writing your how-to guide, you might wonder if your tone or writing style should differ, compared to other kinds of writing.
In short: Yes, it should.
How-to guides should offer tactical, actionable advice on a topic so readers can start following the steps immediately.
When people search "How to …" they're often in a rush to find the information they need. This means it's critical you write in short, concise sentences to provide an answer quickly.
Here are some more best practices to keep in mind when writing a how-to guide:
Use verbs when writing out steps.
Verbs put your instructions in motion. So, active verbs can help your readers visualize themselves doing the task as you teach them how to do it. For example, say "Write a company background" rather than "Your RFP should start with a brief background on your company."
As you write, you’ll also want to avoid passive verbs like the examples below:
- "Flour and water were stirred together."
- "The page tab has been opened, so we can click the box at the top."
If you find that you often slip into passive voice as you write, use a grammar-checking tool to catch and fix your errors.
Make your how-to guide easy to skim.
Many people skim instructions. This means that they quickly skip text that includes stories, data, or longer details. People who skim may pay more attention to introductions, summaries, or the first and last sentences of a chunk of text. Bolded, underlined, or highlighted text can also get their attention.
Use numbered lists, headers, and bullet points to break up the text. These tactics make for easy readability and understanding.
Offer examples to show your readers what you mean.
Show readers what you mean to bring your instructions to life. First, use sensory details and action to create a picture in their head as you write your how-to guide. Pair images with written text for readers who can't load the image on their screen or don't understand what you're trying to tell them from the image itself.
Write with empathy.
How-to guides often attract a wide range of readers, all with varying levels of expertise. So, be sure to acknowledge that it can be frustrating when learning or refining a new skill.
For example, the guide "How to Create a YouTube Channel" likely attracts YouTube beginners who want to create a channel to watch and comment on friends' YouTube posts.
But it probably also attracts professional marketers who need to create a channel for their business to attract and convert leads.
With such a diverse audience, it's critical you write clearly, but not condescendingly. This can help you make sure you retain readers regardless of skill level or background experience.
Is there a difference in how you would write a tutorial vs. a how-to guide?
Tutorials and guides are often used interchangeably to define content that explains how to complete a particular task. While some argue that one is more descriptive than the other, you'll find that it varies from one brand to the next.
Perhaps the most distinctive difference is between a how-to guide and a user manual. A how-to guide is typically a top-of-the-funnel piece of content meant to attract users and generate leads.
A user manual is typically created for someone who has already purchased a product or service and needs step-by-step instructions on how to use it.
While one falls under marketing materials, the other relates more to the product.
Publishing a How-to Guide
Test every step of your instructions.
Once you've finished writing your guide, it's time to test it out. As you test your instructions, take careful notes. If you have to scan an instruction more than once, you may need to add context or add an image for more clarity.
Ask someone to proofread your guide.
It's always a good idea to get different points of view when you're proofreading a how-to guide. You never know how a word choice or set of instructions will impact another person, so it's smart to test it out with a small group of friends or colleagues.
A polite ask for help goes a long way. It's also a good idea to make the proofreading process as easy as possible for your helpers. Clearly state what you're looking for, expect questions and critical feedback, and connect with a diverse group of people for the most useful insights.
Share your how-to guide.
Whether you're offering a QR code or promoting by word-of-mouth, your next step is to share your guide with your audience.
Other popular ways to share your guide include:
How-to guides are also great for repurposing content.
Tips for Effective How-to Guides
- Simple is best.
- Keep it short.
- Start with an overview.
- Help the reader prepare for each step.
- Write instructions at a consistent level.
- Tell an interesting story.
- Stay positive.
1. Simple is best.
Simplicity will make your guide easy to find, use, and understand. To make sure that your how-to guide is truly simple, take a close look at your topic.
Your guide should focus on the one thing that your reader should be able to begin and complete after reading your guide. If you take a look at your guide and it doesn't meet that benchmark, it's time to simplify.
A few quick ways to simplify your how-to include:
- Breaking your topic into more smaller and specific topics
- Narrow down your target audience
- Scan your guide for extra content that could be distracting and edit
2. Keep it short.
Writing concise copy takes a lot of practice. If your guide is longer than it needs to be and you're not sure how to cut the extra text, these tips can help:
- Cut "the" and "that" when it makes sense
- Limit adverbs and adjectives like very, really, and literally
- Replace three and four-syllable words with shorter alternatives
3. Start with an overview.
A great how-to guide begins with a clear overview. This overview should include:
- A quick summary of your guide
- What your audience will need to use it
- What they'll achieve once they follow the directions
- Why it's worth doing
It's usually easier to write the first paragraph last. This way all the details are complete, you just need a few quick attention-grabbing sentences to pull your readers in. Check out this post if you have a hard time writing introductions.
4. Help the reader prepare for each step.
Many step by steps are great at the beginning or easy at the end, but they can get murky somewhere in the middle. This can create frustration in users, especially when they get to a step that they aren't prepared for.
To avoid this, try to anticipate the questions a reader might have at each step. For example, don't just offer an overview of the materials they'll need for the project as a whole. Talk about what materials they'll need and when, and how to store them, if you think it will be helpful.
Add resources that help your users understand how all the different pieces will fit together.
Repetition can get annoying for some readers. But it's essential for a how-to guide. Repetition is crucial during the learning process because it can help readers get comfortable with new information faster.
5. Write instructions at a consistent level.
If you're a subject expert, you might combine beginner and advanced terms in your writing without realizing it. This can confuse your audience and make your guide tough to understand. It also creates a lack of consistency that will make your instructions more difficult to follow.
If you think this could be a concern, scan your how-to guide for jargon as you proofread. You can also ask proofreaders from other niches and industries to check that your vocabulary is beginner-appropriate.
6. Tell an interesting story.
The best how-to guides aren't just useful, they're fun to read. To keep your guide engaging, don't forget to tell a story.
Make sure you have a clear message throughout the guide, add personal experiences, and use conflict to add interest.
For example, say you're writing a how-to guide about adding software to a computer. A potential point of conflict is when there's not enough disk space to finish installing.
That doesn't sound like a big deal, but if you've ever experienced it, it can be really frustrating. If you can paint that picture vividly for your audience they'll be more likely to follow your directions.
7. Stay positive.
Anyone who seeks out a how-to guide is trying to expand their knowledge about the world. That seems pretty simple, but it's also a big risk. Many people stop trying new things because they don't want to look foolish. So, as you write, keep in mind that learning is exciting, but it's often uncomfortable too.
Keeping your writing positive can help make your readers feel more at ease as they venture into the unknown. Uplifting stories, word choices, and tone can make even difficult instructions seem easier. They can inspire and motivate.
You can also add some positivity by softening negative information. For example, instead of saying "You'll probably fail at this the first time," try saying something like, "This skill may take some practice before you're an expert."
How-to Guide Examples
How-to Guide Example: B2B
Why we like this how-to guide example: This B2B how-to guide offers important contextual details to the 90-day plan, including "What is a 90-day plan?" and "What should be included in a 90-day plan?" The piece is well-researched and written with empathy.
Best of all, the guide provides a downloadable 90-day plan PDF, so readers can download and use Atlassian's plan with their own team right away.
Takeaway: Consider what ebooks, PDFs, charts, Canva designs, or Google Sheets you can create internally and offer to readers to download. Readers will appreciate the option to immediately apply what they've learned.
More B2B How-to Examples
Why we like this how-to guide example: Partnering with complementary businesses and services can add depth and perspective to your how-to guide. This example is comprehensive and packed with useful resources from both HubSpot and Brandfolder. It also uses relevant data to highlight key sections.
Takeaway: Look for creative ways to add value to your how-to guide, especially when you are writing about a topic your audience is already familiar with.
Why we like this how-to guide example: When you're creating guides for more advanced topics, creating a foundation for your readers is essential. This guide begins with a detailed introduction to the topic that cites current statistics and trends. Then, it goes on to cover relevant topics at each stage in the buyer journey. Next, it offers a useful checklist, links, and resources to put this learning into action.
Takeaway: A clear structure makes challenging topics easier to understand. So, think about the ideal start and end points for your expert readers when writing about specific and advanced topics.
How-to Guide Example: B2C
Why we like this how-to guide example: This guide does a good job providing relevant links and data to create a comprehensive overview of what freelancing is.
Additionally, the post uses action verbs to inspire the reader.
Under "How to Start a Freelance Business." you'll see tips such as "Do Your Homework," "Create a Brand," and "Plan Ahead." The language used in this post goes a long way toward encouraging readers to get started quickly.
Takeaway: Use action verbs and concise language to keep a reader engaged. When possible, start with a verb instead of a noun when listing out steps.
More B2C How-to Examples
Why we like this how-to guide example: This is a great how-to guide for beginners because it includes resources that offer multiple ways to take in the material. This guide is packed with checklists, links to courses, templates, and tools that can help anyone start a blog.
Takeaway: There are many different learning styles. The more choices you give your students to take in the information you're sharing, the more likely they are to get value from your guide.
Why we like this how-to guide example: This example offers a personal perspective on leadership that goes beyond typical advice. It also uses creative headers like "Beyond the Paycheck: What We Wish For," "Doubtliers: Dangers Learning From the Exceptional," and "Great companies don’t always make great decisions" to engage the reader in the content.
Takeaway: Teach broad how-to topics from a unique perspective, and add interest with relevant stories.
How-to Guide Example: Lifestyle
Why we like this how-to guide example: I clicked on this post expecting a few quick, easy tips for stopping stress. Instead, I was engrossed in the first section of the post, "The Effects of Stress in Your Life."
While I previously mentioned the importance of starting with a quick answer to the searcher's how-to question, there are exceptions to that rule.
In this case, it's important readers understand the why before the how.
Takeaway: Play around with structure. Consider what your readers need to know in order for the rest of the post to matter to them. For instance, you might start with a section, "What is XYZ?" and "Why XYZ matters" before diving into, "How to do XYZ." This way, your readers are fully invested in finding out how these tips can improve their lives in some small (or big) way.
More Lifestyle How-to Examples
Why we like this how-to guide example: This how-to guide is neatly organized so readers can quickly determine a) what makes this recipe special, b) the ingredients they'll need, and c) how to make the recipe.
If a reader already knows the ingredients necessary for honey pie, they can click on "Jump to Recipe" to get started right away.
Takeaway: As you're structuring your own how-to guide, consider how you can best organize it so readers can jump straight to what they need.
Why we like this how-to guide example: How-to guides are more than written instructions. Useful images, break-out pages that highlight external links, and infographics are powerful additions to this example. It has a great balance of features and white space to make this guide easy on the eyes and quick to skim.
Takeaway: It doesn't matter how great your how-to guide writing is if it's not well-designed. Take a look at how-to guide examples to get inspiration for the look and feel of your guide design.
Create a How-to Guide That’s Worth Sharing Today
The right how-to guide can change someone's life. It can also give your business a major boost, improve the customer experience, and more.
All it takes is some planning, research, and know-how to create a great step-by-step guide. Your experience can help someone make a difference, just create a guide that makes your knowledge worth sharing.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2021. It has been updated for freshness and accuracy.