Evergreen content is probably the most valuable kind you can create. It has a long shelf life, and can continue to drive traffic to your site for years. How-to articles are perhaps the most logical choice when creating content that you want to work for your site for this kind of time frame.
John Hewitt of PoeWar.com, has worked as a technical writer for companies like IBM, Intuit, and Motorola. Needless to say, he has some experience in providing people with instructions. At BlogWorld, he talked about what makes an effective how-to article and a little bit about how the average blogger can still compete in this space, despite the uprising of content machines like Demand Studios (which operates eHow.com), Associated Content, etc.
Competing in an Increasingly Crowded Industry
While making it clear that he likes the people behind Demand Studios (the content creation arm of Demand Media), which he has at one time counted among his sponsors, he tells me that the content they provide simply just isn’t always of the highest quality, and for that reason, there is still room for competition. Simply make your content better. Google recognizes things like when someone clicks on a piece of content and quickly clicks right back off, he notes.
Perhaps there is hope for the little guy in this space yet.
How To Do How-To’s
Now we’ll get into some of the tips Hewitt provided for excelling in this kind of writing. First of all, how-to articles should be designed to help readers accomplish a specific task. "People are always asking how to do something," he says.
The article should have a well defined goal, the necessary components to achieve that goal, and it should be updated periodically, if the process calls for it. Time can change the effectiveness of certain strategies, particularly when technology is involved. Your content is not going to be evergreen if it is outdated.
You’re going to want to identify your target audience, define your stated goal (which is generally done in the title), and consider the underlying goals for the article. For example, the article might be about modding a piece of hardware, but an underlying goal for the reader might be to impress their friends with the mod. This can play a role in the style and tone of the article.
Hewitt says how-to’s should be kept to under 800 words when you’re talking about blog posts. If it needs to be longer, break it up into different posts for different parts of the process. People generally don’t want to read incredibly long posts, particularly if they’re trying to get something done.
Write about something you know about. It’s a good idea to talk to experts and research what others have written (and attribute credit accordingly) to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge on the subject.
Define what Hewitt refers to as your "standards for success". Does your piece solve a problem? Make something function properly? Allow the person to achieve the goal without hurting themselves physically? It depends on the subject and the audience. You have to define your own standards for success.
When writing the piece, consider things like shortcuts, decisions and choices involved, situational changes, customizations, substitutions, and alternative methods. Make sure these are clear to the reader.
Test the article out. Can you walk through the steps and reach the goal? Can someone else you know do the same?
When it comes to style, be direct, concise, and unambiguous, Hewitt says. Use short, declarative sentences with only a single step in one sentence. Use consistency with you word choices. For example, if you are talking about a software program and call it "the program", continue calling it that throughout the article, as opposed to calling it "the application".
If you use graphics, only use them if they make the process easier to follow (which they often can). They should clarify the process, whether they are illustrations, photos, flowcharts, slide shows, or videos. Hewitt mentioned some pros and cons with screenshots in particular. They can accurately show results of steps, make things easier to comprehend, and make presentations look more authoritative, but they can also take up visual space, make instructions look cluttered, and can become obsolete without notice. They can also be hard to read on mobile devices and hard to print well.
Finally when it comes to order and grouping, Hewitt says to number steps when the order of the steps is important, when the steps are short, and when they require little discussion. Don’t use them when order is less important, each step does require discussion, and/or you’re writing in a casual voice (that last one’s probably debatable). Use unordered lists to group similar items (like tools/resources). Use bullet points and keep items brief when possible.
Include results immediately after a step or when the step creates a change. Hewitt talks about this all in more detail here.