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How to write a basic how-to instruction

Learn the basics of creating a simple how-to, and make all of your users' lives easier.
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How to write a basic how-to
Image by meisjedevos from Pixabay

With the increase in online documentation, being a sysadmin has changed from the man command being your only friend to having access to instructions for what you are trying to do (or at least close enough to adapt).

These instructions are courtesy of someone who decided to document what they were doing, an open source contributor documenting part of their project, or the professional work of a tech writer.

Most "how-to" articles will include information about the scenario behind the article or the end goal, which will help the reader put the instructions into context. In addition, most how-tos will include not just the commands and configuration changes you will need to do to perform the task but also screenshots of the output of commands so you can compare your results at various stages.

And at the end of performing the tasks in the how-to, you should have the basic skills that lead to the successful completion of a task (or close enough). In this case, the end goal is for you to be able to put together a basic how-to.

The introduction

Even this blog post had some introductory information as to why a person would create a how-to article, and it even gave some additional information as to who might have written it. The introduction gave you enough information to determine whether or not the article contained what you were looking for.

It's important to note that you may find a how-to that doesn't align 100 percent with your scenario, but it's close. You should, at this point, have an idea of what differences you might encounter and need to solve on your own.

Clear instructions

Most people learn from front to back, through a linear progression from beginning to end, without hopping around the order of things.

One way to achieve this is either by using headers, which, in many markdown-related formats, begin with a number of #. So, in the case of this section, the header is actually ## Clear Instructions, if you were to look at the code. If you were to use something like a word processor, you might simply use a bigger text (markdown doesn't have this function) and/or bold text.

Another method to achieve this is by using numbered or bulleted lists. For example:

  1. The Introduction

    Content

  2. Clear Instructions

    Content

  3. The rest of this article

    Content

or

  • The Introduction

    Content

  • Clear Instructions

    Content

  • The rest of this article

    Content

Use a combination of headers and lists to make your information clear and easy to follow!

Code

When talking about commands for use on the Command Line Interface (CLI) or code in scripts, it's important to distinguish these pieces of information from any text. Now the goal, of course, is for the reader to read your text and actually learn why they're about to type the command and what will happen, but, as we all know, sometimes we just cut and paste what we're told to.

So, to achieve both distinction and the ability to cut and paste, you can use code blocks in a markdown language.

Example

In order to create a new directory, you will need to use the mkdir command, which stands for "make directory." So let's go ahead and make a new directory called "test."

mkdir test

As you can see, you've been given an introduction explaining the goal, the command you'll be using along with some additional information about it, and then, lastly, the command you can type in or cut and paste. Note how markdown can place it in a code block by having starting and ending lines containing ``` and the command in the middle line, or, if needed, multiple lines.

Visuals

Visuals can be used in many different ways. They could be a code block showing what the end results would look like, or they can be a picture or chart to help relay information. Utilizing screenshots of an interface can be especially important when you need to explicitly show where you might need to click to perform a task or the end result of a task.

In the case of demonstrating the output of a command, let's go back to our earlier example and build on it.

Example

In order to create a new directory, you will need to use the mkdir command, which stands for "make directory." So let's go ahead and make a new directory called "test."

# mkdir test

To see the results of our command, we would type ls for a list of contents with the -l option to see the long listing.

# ls -l
# total 0
drwxrwxr-x. 2 amy amy 6 Aug  9 18:24 test

In the case of an interface, a screenshot often comes in handy to explain where you would need to interact with it or to give a visual for an explanation.

Example

In order to create a new virtual network using the web interface, you will need to click on the Create Virtual Network in the upper right-hand corner, as shown here outlined in red.

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Red Hat cockpit interface

This will open a pop-up, which you will need to configure with the following information to create our test virtual network on the 192.168.100.0/24 network:

  1. Name—Name of your network (which will be "test")
  2. Forward Mode—Defaults to the desired NAT
  3. Device—We will allow it to be configured automatically.
  4. IP Configuration—In this case, you want to select IPv4 Only.
  5. IPv4 Network—In this case, we will be using 192.168.100.0.
  6. Mask or Prefix—As we're using the whole /24, we will put 24.
  7. Set DHCP Range—We will not be setting a DHCP Range, so leave this unchecked.
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Create Virtual Network interface

So, in this case, we had a visual to show the screen, with a box to highlight the portion of the screen we said we would need to click on. And we followed this up with the result, as well as what was there and what options we will be using to complete the task.

Conclusion

With any how-to, you should conclude with what the reader should walk away with. So, in this case, the reader should walk away with the basic understanding of how to create a how-to and the types of information to place in it.

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Amy Marrich

Amy Marrich is a Principal Technical Marketing Manager at Red Hat. More about me

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