The notions of pillar and evergreen content aren’t exactly news to bloggers—we know that’s where we have some of our best shots of nurturing rapport and loyalty, and building repeat readership. It follows, then, that we should hone our pillar-content-writing skills.
Today I wanted to look at a key type of pillar content: tutorials. Many blogs post tutorial content in some form or other, even if it’s not labeled as such. We recently published a tutorial on Facebook albums here at “That Work” – SLG, and if your blog is one that gives advice, you’ve probably penned a tutorial or two in your time.
The next time you’re writing a tute, apply these tips and see if they make a difference to the quality and value of your pillar content.
1. Set the tutorial’s deliverables.
Setting the tutorial’s deliverables isn’t about working out what you want to say: it’s about working out what your audience wants to know. So you think a tutorial on pruning basics will be good pillar content for your gardening blog? Great. Your starting point should be your readers: what do they know about pruning? What types of plants are they pruning? Do they have any experience with pruning? What kinds of content will help them: diagrams, videos, or descriptions?
Approach your tutorial from the perspective of your blog’s users and you’ll be able to easily—and accurately—identify what the tutorial’s deliverables should be. For example, you might focus this tutorial on fruit-tree pruning for novices—people who have never pruned a fruit tree in their lives. Your deliverables, or goals, are that by the end of the tute, your readers feel confident to go outside and prune a fruit tree in their garden. They’ll know what tools they need, and they’ll know exactly what they need to do to prune the tree for maximum productivity next season.
2. Structure the content.
Next, plot out your tutorial roughly. You might start by listing the key concepts users will need to understand, and planning out a logical flow of content that introduces those concepts, then builds on them with practical application-related information.
What you’ll end up with is likely a series of steps. Make these into headings and subheadings within your tutorial. Make them numbered headings if they all have a place in the logical flow of the information, and if you like, attach a word like “step” or “stage” or task” to each one. Make your subheadings as prescriptive and unambiguous as possible, and create for each a statement that indicates clearly what information will fall in each section. For our pruning tutorial, the first heading might be, “Step 1: Prepare Your Pruning Tools.”
Also consider the types of content you’ll use to communicate with your users. You might use images to illustrate some points, and videos to show others. Identify where you’ll need specific information types at this point, before you begin writing, since this is probably the time when you’re at your most objective about what methods of presentation will work best for your tutorial’s audience—and make your pillar content truly invaluable.
3. Use word flags consistently.
Every topic has its own language. Sometimes, that language can degenerate into jargon, but it’s fair to say that if you’re teaching readers something through a tutorial, there’s probably some topic-specific language they’ll need to understand. For the pruning tute, that language might include words like:
- secateurs, saw, shears
- bud, spur, leader
- challis, cordon
- espalier, train, pleach
As you write the tutorial, be prepared to introduce each term as you need to within the logical flow of information you planned. You might decide to italicize the first instance of each word, then provide its definition immediately afterward. Do this consistently, and your readers will understand that every time they see an italicized term, it’s something they need to learn. They’ll also know to expect a definition. The italics will make it easy for them to find the definition again if they forget it later in the tutorial; the definitions must be provided consistently to make your italicizing worthwhile, and your tutorial clear.
This way, your topic-specific terms become word flags for readers: once they read your definition of pleaching, and understand what that is, they’ll more quickly comprehend the information in your tutorial—and the rest of your blog—that builds on this concept. So don’t go interchanging the word “pleaching” with “training” or “shaping”. That negates the value of your word flags, and undermines the comprehensibility of the content itself. Once you’ve explained a topic-specific term, use it accurately and consistently everywhere.
4. Explain images and downloads.
When you planned the tutorial, you worked out the places where different types of content might best be used to make particular points. For example, a picture of secateurs will probably communicate more clearly to our would-be pruning buffs than would a wordy description of the tool.
Whenever you include a type of content that’s different from the primary content type your tutorial employs, explain it clearly. Don’t include images, sound files, PDFs, or other downloads without explanation—and make those explanations detailed and as clear as you can. If this kind of extra information creates confusion, you’ll lose those very readers you’re trying to help.
5. Show how you delivered on your promises.
Remember the old essay-writing advice: tell them what you’ll say, say it, then tell them what you said? That advice applies very strongly to tutorials. Your tute’s subheadings clearly identified what users would learn in each section of the content. Its introduction should set out exactly what the user will learn from the tutorial, and its conclusion should show how the tutorial delivered on those promises.
Your introduction might explain what readers will learn—what need the information addresses or problem it solves—in broad terms, seeing as they may not have the necessary topic-specific language to get into detail just yet.
The ideal conclusion goes much further, though: it reiterates the actual flow of the information you presented and shows how that addresses the need or problem you identified in the tutorial’s introduction. It basically explains to the reader how your tutorial solves their problem—and justifies for them the reasons why this pillar content is valuable, and worth bookmarking, sharing, commenting on, and favoriting.
I think these are the basic prerequisites of a great tutorial. What others can you add?