Easy Does It

My mother, oldest daughter, and I created a company called Hopeful Expressions in 2003.   We are a breast cancer support company that makes products for breast cancer patients and their families and friends.  Most of the time we make original, hand-stamped greeting cards, but we also have journals and tote bags.  My sister always took a tote bag with her to chemotherapy, and then one time she noticed that there were very few cards available that supported breast cancer patients, so our goal has been to make those products she would be making now if she were still alive.

Recently, we decided to try covering journals with fabric.  My mom made many tote bags using fabric that supported breast cancer research.  Instead of using paper covers for our journals, we decided to download some free patterns from the computer so she could use more of our fabric for the journals.  It seemed easy enough.  However, we encountered a major problem with on-line directions.  They were confusing and many just did not work the way they were supposed to.  Because my mom is a great seamstress, she is working to modify the patterns, but it is taking days of work.

I started to think about how people, especially bloggers, write directions for the products they make, including greeting cards.  I know they know how to make the product, and most of the time the directions are great.  But when they are confusing, I suspect it’s because they have left out certain steps that are obvious to them but not to the crafter.

When I was teaching middle school, one of  my favorite assignments was writing a how-to paper.  Today as technological advances occur almost daily, our children need to be able to explain how things work.  Young children are frequently asked in school to write directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or tying their shoes.  I asked my middle school students to decide what it is they do well that everyone can’t do.  It could be how to make a certain craft (I often did the assignment right before Christmas so they could show how to make an ornament, wrap a beautiful package, or make a special treat), or it could be sports-related, such as how to make a goal in soccer or a special technique to make a three-pointer in basketball.  It could be how to hold a musical instrument or how to clean it or how to play a few notes.  It could be how to play a card game or do a magic trick. The assignment required the student to write clear directions and choose a classmate to demonstrate it while the writer read the directions aloud to him.  The writers were not allowed to show their partner how to do it.  The written directions needed to be clear.  This was often a funny assignment as some directions were definitely confusing, resulting in a comical and literal  interpretation.  One year a girl decided to show a boy how to do a manicure.  She brought in blue nail polish and a very confident boy agreed to try to follow her directions.  The problem occurred at the end of the demonstration when the girl realized she had forgotten to bring polish remover and the boy went through the school day with blue nails.  He also had to explain to his parents why he was wearing nail polish.

Students quickly discovered that the directions they thought were so clear were not clear at all,  so revision was necessary.  In recent years, I encouraged students to explain how to use some of the new technology, but because it was difficult for them to find someone who didn’t already know how to do it,  I often became the person who needed to learn it!

I wish anyone who posts on-line directions for making a craft or using today’s technology would try them out on someone first, someone who is not very knowledgeable about the subject, so confusion and frustration could be avoided.  My mom is still struggling with how to make a fabric book cover that actually fits and lies flat.  The directions need to be clear and simple.  Isn’t that true for everything we need to learn?

So if you are a teacher needing a new writing assignment for your students, I would encourage you to help them write directions.  Technical writing is an important skill for them to learn and will be even more important for them as they get older, go to college, graduate, and start a career.  If you are a crafter who often posts directions, try them out on someone first.  I think many people today choose to follow bloggers who are not only successful but who can also write clearly.  Those bloggers become our favorites to follow.  My goal today to find someone who can give us clear and easy directions for making a  fabric book cover!

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