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good to great: only words

(Be warned: This is a long post with only words. But that’s what this is all about: words!)

I think we can all agree that online tutorials are so wonderful. Especially when when folks share them for free. (Not that we should expect everything to be free, but it is a nice gift from time to time!) But there are a few things that I really want in a tutorial:

1) Good photos. (See this previous Good to Great post)
2) Clear instructions. (That’s what this post is all about!)
3) Usable patterns. (Good to Great post on this coming Soon!)

I think that these are things that take a tutorial from good to great.

For a few years now, I’ve been sharing tutorials on my blog. Some have been written poorly, some are a bit better, but recently I’ve been really making an effort to improve the these DIY posts.

When I write my posts, I always include photos of the step-by step-process. For those who are more visual (as creatives, isn't this be all of us?), it helps. For myself, I can often just look at the pictures from a tutorial and figure it out. So, it would be easy to think that good photos could take the place of well-written instructions. But the words are very important: they direct and they clarify.

Consider if you didn’t have photos to accompany your instructions. Maybe the links to them got messed up, they didn’t load, or perhaps the reader has a different way of viewing your post. Would the tutorial still be easy to understand?

Here’s a post of mine from 2009, but without the pictures:

On a piece of muslin with a loose-ish weave, I traced my circles. They are the size of the bottom of my Burt's Bees lotion bottle. What? A real measurement? Fine. 1.75" in diameter. Then I freehanded these patterns, and stitched them up. They were not cut out at this point.

I placed my stitched fabric onto a second layer of muslin, and cut out the circles. Then I stitched them together with a running stitch.

I had considered putting eyelets through these, and I might try one like that, but I ended up just pushing a jump ring right through the fabric. I helped it along by making a hole with a large needle first. This process required a bit of practice. First I opened the jump ring a bit, then I made the hole, and then holding the ring with a pliers, I fed it through the hole and closed up the ring again. If you don't get it through the hole right away, the weave closes, and you'll need to make the hole again.

Could you follow this? Maybe. But it requires a bit of deciphering.

Mistake #1: I wrote about the process from my point of view, and in a passive voice (“On a piece of muslin, I traced my circles”). Writing direct instructions in the active voice is easier to understand (“Trace 1.75” circles onto muslin”).

Mistake #2: I was needlessly wordy. Editing is your friend.

Mistake #3: I didn’t include a list of materials needed. The materials were simple (which is probably why I didn't write them out), but they should have been listed at the start.

What did I do right? I made it personal. Maybe too personal (see mistake #1), but this is my blog. It’s not a book, or part of something “official”. I believe that adding a bit of yourself into your work is a good thing, just do it sparingly. More as an aside.

Here’s how I would re-write the post in question:

You will need:
muslin fabric
embroidery floss
jewelry jump rings

For each charm, trace a 1.75” circle onto the muslin. Embroider small designs within the circles. (I stitched mine without a pattern.)

Place the embroidered muslin over a second layer of muslin and cut out the circles.

Stitch around the circles with a running stitch.

Use a large needle to poke a hole in the fabric at the top of each charm. Open a jump ring, then push it through the hole in the fabric. Close the jump ring. (This can be a little tricky, but keep trying!)

Hang the charms onto a necklace chain.

Easier to understand? Even without photos? I think so.

Writing clear instructions can take practice, but I’ve found that modeling my step-by-step instructions after others helps, as does writing bite-size pieces with simple terms. Oh, yeah, and sometimes a bit of narrative for fun.

Hmm...now I feel like I should go back and re-write all of my tutorial posts...


  1. Great! after editing..much lucid..
    ....Now waiting for the Embroidery and Color Selection tutorials to begin, Mollie :-)

  2. I agree- it's not an official declaration. I will usually read through all the instructions, even if the pictures are well done. But I enjoy the added tidbits like a "Burt's Bees bottle". It humanizes it and helps me think out of the box. A little narrative never hurt anyone. ;) And to be honest, a well-written post gives me more confidence that I can do it. I seem to give more credibility to a tutorial if it's clear. (Sidenote pet peeve: I can't stand "And then... Then... Then..." OY. One or two is fine. But EVERY step of the tutorial? Yeah, no.)
    I enjoy how you write. Hence, you're still on my Google Reader. I think you're doing very well, and I SO look forward to more!

  3. You know, I can look past overly verbose, so I don't think you should edit any of your older tutorials. It's kinda fun to see a person's progression. Unless, of course, you ended any of them with "Your done!" Drives me batty, that one does. :)

  4. It's funny because after reading this, I'm thinking, "Hey, I do that too (needlessly wordy)."

    I would change your old posts -- it shows how you've changed. :)

  5. *typo: wouldn't change your posts
    not would change your posts


  6. Excellent advice.
    It takes a extra special person to be able to critique themselves, you did a great job!

    PS - Don't go back and change your posts, unless you're getting a lot of feedback to do so, otherwise, I say move forward with new things.

    "when you know better, you do better"

  7. great post! I've tried working on that, too! I'm definitely too wordy at times. Edit, edit, edit. Thanks for some great tips!


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