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How to write clearer directions

Communicating procedures and processes can be tough. Even when you walk yourself through the steps and write them down as you go, it never seems to come out quite right. Sometimes the order of things reflects your way but not the best way. Other times you leave out a key detail that's obvious to you (but not the reader).

There's a handy tool we use internally and with clients that helps us check off this kind of content before we get too far along: The Transition-Action-Details Strategy®, developed by my colleague (and husband!) Steve Peha for use with school kids. But trust me, it works great for grown-ups, too!

Here's how it works.

How to Use the Transition-Action-Details Strategy

The T-A-D is the most effective way to nail down information that must be conveyed in a particular order, like a registration process, driving directions, or even an account of an event. It's also helpful when you're revising content, to put what the reader needs where they need it.

  • Procedures and Processes
  • Meeting, Conference or Trip Reports
  • Driving Directions
  • Project Plans
  • Résumés
  • Technical Documentation or Manuals

Planning content

Here's a T-A-D I did recently for an awards competition I'm volunteering with. I took notes while I was walking through the demo, and added a few details where I got confused or thought others might. You can see some arrows where I moved some things around to make the process even clearer.

TAD Example

I worked through the strategy by filling in the two “actions” that were clear: the first and the last. Then I walked through the sequence. As you can see, I didn't  need or have a TRANSITION word (remember that from school) for each action. That's because the transition often happens right in the ACTION or DETAIL). Then I reviewed the document with a teammate and made some addition notes (those arr0ws). Finally, I asked Steve to review to make sure it made sense to someone unfamiliar with the process. Thankfully, it did!

When I'm using the T-A-D for revision, I usually use the TRANSITION column to add "transition details" that link ACTION from the former row to the next one, or to re-order steps.

Writing content

To write from the T-A-D, work across each row to create a sentence or a paragraph, or a point on a timeline. One caution: Don't stop there. You’ll notice that that working across the rows kills your sentence fluency because every sentence will have a very similar pattern:

Intro part (TRANSITION), main part (ACTION) and an add-on part or two (DETAILS).

That's a recipe for boring content! Do a some sentence level revising to break the recurring pattern and make your piece more engaging for readers. This is especially important for longer procedures or for short bullet lists where the repetition is obvious and annoying.

Want to try it yourself? I prefer sketching it out by hand, but if you want a fancier version, download the annotated Transition-Action-Details Strategy (with handy insights) or the blank worksheet.

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