The number of How-To’s we write here at MakeUuseOf is simply staggering. Each of them requires a huge amount of research before it is ready for publication. It’s quite a challenge to break down the information and present it to our readers in a clear, lucid manner. And we understand that many fellow bloggers face the same problem everyday. So we decided that we’ll let you in on the secret to our prowess with creating how to guides.
Once you’ve decided what to write about, you need to make sure that you use the correct set of tools to express your idea to the readers. This includes tools to research the topic, to take screenshots, record screencasts, etc. You also need to make sure that your how-to is valid and doesn’t contain any mistakes. You can use the following set of awesome tools to get all those aspects in order.
Research Tools to Create a How To Guide
Google: The Grand-daddy of Research
You may have the best idea, but there’s really no point to create a how to guide unless you can back it up with material that is accurate, simple to understand and something that doesn’t intimidate the reader. You can use Google (or for that matter any good search engine) to learn about the subject.
If you are an expert on the subject, you may only need to look up a couple of definitions. In case you are a novice, you can head over to other blogs/websites to learn more about the subject that you want to teach your readers. Be innovative with your searches. Use the following strategies:
- Type exact phrases (e.g. How to delete the Recycle Bin from the Desktop): More often than not, such searches return very accurate results from reputable websites. Use quotation marks to narrow down your search further. See the screenshot below to understand how this helps.
- Use the define keyword: Every now and then, you will come across a term that’s frequently used in your how-to, but you can’t stitch together the perfect definition for it. Sometimes you may also be looking for a definition to kick-off your How-To. In such cases, you could use the define keyword in Google.
- Look deep: Sometimes, the resource you are looking for may be buried tens of thousands of links deep. All you need to do is make sure that you don’t get discouraged after the first three or four pages of results. If you don’t want to troll through tons of pages, you could even try your luck and click a result page randomly.
Organizing The Research
It’s one thing getting hold of all that you need to make your how-to rock. It’s quite another to organize and sort through the tons and tons of information that you now have at your disposal. We recommend that you use the following two tools to organize your research.
- Evernote: Evernote comes in a free as well as a paid avatar. The free version is generally enough to serve anyone’s research appetite. It installs really quickly and provides you with a place to clip your research and organize it into different notebooks. You can set up a capture hot-key or use the button that is installed into your toolbar to invoke Evernote. All your notes are automatically synced to the Evernote servers so your research is with you wherever you are.In the screenshot below, look at how Evernote has helped to organize research about stock trading. Furthermore, each individual note can be assigned Tags, and notes can then be searched by using these tags.
- Zotero: Zotero is a more Firefox-specific solution to research. Once you’ve installed Zotero into Firefox, you can go crazy with your research. Amongst other features, it lets you automatically capture citations, remotely sync your research, organize the research using collections and tags, and import/export to almost any application that can process text/images.Make sure you read our Zotero tutorial. You can also check out a video demonstrating Zotero on their website. The screenshots below show the Zotero library view, the center pane, and the Zotero editor for your notes.
Make It Interactive
Nobody wants to read boring, text-only accounts of how you used a small sheet of cardboard to forge a wallet for yourself. They would be more likely to watch a video of what you did. If you decide to include a video, make sure that it looks professional. Here are a few guidelines to go about the process:
- Use a camcorder. No, your iPhone’s camera doesn’t count
- Try to reach a balance between casual and formal. The video should feature language casual enough to keep the reader interested, yet retain the touch of professionalism that a hit video requires.
- Don’t use a million angles. Decide on a couple and stick to them.
- Zoom in on the subject. That’s your project we are referring to, not you!
- Care about the poor people who can’t afford expensive bandwidth. Make sure you have multiple editions of the video. You could have one at a low resolution, and another in higher quality.
Below, you see a couple of stills from how-to videos. No prizes for guessing which one is considered good, and which one is considered bad.
Make sure to check our list of 18 Online Tools To Mix, Edit, and Enhance Your Videos. You should also check out our Essential Video Tutorials for Shooting and Editing Video.
If the how-to is about something on your computer, it’s imperative that you provide an adequate number of screenshots. Remember that the entire world wasn’t blessed with your geekiness when they descended upon Earth. A screenshot here and there can go a long way to help your readers understand what you mean. A few guidelines to help you get started:
- Use proper, clear screenshots.
- Decide on a uniform width x height for your screenshots, and try your best to restrict your screenshots to those figures.
- Too many screenshots can be overkill too. Instead of providing a screenshot for every step (such as clicking on the start button), try covering only the most important steps in your screenshots. If it is impossible to eliminate any intermediate steps, try using a smaller screenshot, or use a screencast (more on this below).
- Learn from other websites. You can do so by simply paying attention to their screenshots. Start with how we provide screenshots on MakeUseOf — like in this article, for instance.
Below, you can see a few examples of screenshots. One is what’s considered a good screenshot, and the other is what would generally be regarded as poor. Let us assume that the how-to is about a feature within the Firefox menu. Notice how the good screenshot is very, very specific in nature, while the bad one tends to distract the user a lot.
Now that you know the ins and outs of creating screenshots, you can use our tried and tested applications for creating screenshots. Check out one of our articles here.
Screencasts are even better than screenshots. They basically combine the best advantages of videos and screenshots. You can literally walk your readers through the entire process by using a screencast. To get a better idea about what a screencast should look like, check out the video below.
Read up our article about 5 Free Screencasting Apps for Creating Video Tutorials to get going with screencasts.
Writing a How-To guide can be a major pain if you don’t have the correct tools at your disposal. However, with just a little bit of systematic organization, and a pinch of imagination, you can make your how-to really stand out and make a mark.