This Instructable was inspired mainly by my contributions over at The Clinic, which, if you haven't heard of it, is a forum thread where you can go to ask for help critiquing your projects. I typically volunteer to help out with electronics or robotics-related projects, and found myself giving some of the same repetitive advice to new authors. While there are several great "How to Write a Good Instructable" guides, ranging from this one by site founder Eric Wilhelm, to this one by veteran contributor Kiteman, to this recently featured project, I thought it might be helpful to write one specifically about electronics projects. With so many Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and RGB LED projects floating around, there are a few pointers you can follow to really help your Instructable stand out - and hopefully get featured (and maybe even win a contest, but I don't make any promises). I'm hoping this Instructable will be useful to both beginners trying to get featured for the first time, and electronics gurus who need help writing projects for a general audience.
I do want to clarify what this Instructable is not: I'm not going to re-hash general rules of thumb, like using proper grammar instead of text-message style abbreviations. If you're looking for general style and formatting advice, check out one of the guides I listed above or the Featuring Checklist. Instead, I'm going to focus on four main things that can turn a good electronics project into an awesome electronics project, that I've specifically seen people have trouble with in The Clinic:
Think I missed anything? Leave a comment below!
*Note to judges: I'm hoping this will still qualify for the Remix Contest even though it is a remix of multiple Instructables instead of just one.
Step 1: General Approach
Before going into more detail, I want to outline my general approach to writing Instructables: assume the reader is a beginner who has never seen your project before. This mindset will frame the approach for the following steps. This is useful for newbies and experienced tinkerers alike, because there are two major pitfalls you want to avoid:
Caveat: I realize that there will be some exceptions to the second point. Sometimes you might want to write an advanced DIY quadcopter project that is really only appropriate for someone who already had quadcopter-building experience, and not someone who is out to blink their first LED. This advice is intended for the big percentage of Instructables that should be accessible to beginners if written properly.
Step 2: Make a detailed materials list
Every electronics project should start out with a good materials list. My number one piece of advice is to provide exact links to the parts you used with quantities. Include a list of tools required to do the project - not everyone has a laser cutter or 3D printer, or even a soldering iron for that matter. Here are examples of "bad" and "good" materials lists (for a "project" I'll be using as an example in the next couple steps):
Bad Materials List
Good Materials List
More generally, I've seen two recurring offenses that you should try to avoid:
Let's start with transistors. There are over 100,000 search results for "transistor" on Digikey's website. Even a hobbyist-oriented site like SparkFun, with a much smaller selection, returns multiple results. Without more information than "transistor," there's no way for someone to know which part they need to do your project. So, you could go further and specify the type (e.g. NPN), or one step beyond that and actually specify the part number (e.g. 2N3904). I'd always recommend providing a link to where you bought the part. Navigating a vendor's website might seem like a piece of cake to you, but it can be intimidating to a beginner. Think about how many part numbers differ by just one letter or number, and how much confusion that could cause someone browsing an electronics site for the first time (for example, the L293 and L293D motor drivers, which have different product pages but share the same datasheet).
How about wire? Wire is a very common item to "just have laying around." Odds are you have stockpiles of it and didn't buy it specifically for one project. But remember - "wire" might be too vague. What kind? What gauge? Hookup wire? Speaker wire? Magnet wire? How would someone following your directions exactly know which kind to use? Don't make them guess from the pictures. Even if you didn't buy a part or a general "consumable" specifically for this project, take the extra time to look up links for where you would buy them if you needed more. For example, here's a nice 22 AWG solid-core hookup wire assortment.
The same goes for pretty much every other electronic component you can think of. Resistors, diodes, LEDs...you name it, and there are probably thousands and thousands of different kinds with different specs. Providing links might not work for everyone (for example, people in different countries, and I know some people swear by eBay for better prices), but that extra effort on your part is just one more way to make your project more accessible.
Step 3: Photos: Avoid workbench clutter
Good photos are key to any Instructable, not just electronics ones. There are entire groups of Instructables dedicated to taking great photos, including how to take good photos with a smartphone and how to improvise a home light booth or photo studio. I won't try to repeat all of the excellent work done there, or provide detailed advice about adjusting settings on your camera. Instead, I'll focus on the single most important thing you can do for your electronics project: clean up your work area and use a white background.
That might sound like a lot of extra work when you already have your project sitting amidst parts for 8 other projects on your desk, or on your kitchen table with last night's dishes in the background. But remember - you want to go the extra mile to make your Instructable really stand out. Messy photos won't look good, and they could make your project hard to follow. That means taking a deep breath and cleaning off your workbench or doing those dishes. The difference between acceptable photos and great photos could make the difference for that super-awesome thumbnail that make people go "whoa, that looks cool" and click on your project, or the extra push you need to win that contest, so it's well worth the effort.
My "photo area", shown in the pictures above, originally consisted of a $1 piece of white posterboard and some Scotch tape. Taping the posterboard to the wall behind the desk gives you a nice seamless background with no creases or edges visible. Eventually, I added two $15 clip-on lamps from Target with "daylight" CFL bulbs for slightly better lighting, but that's it. If you don't have the budget for a couple extra lights, try to take your pictures in a room with good ambient lighting during the day. Again, this is just my setup - there are a lot of other good Instructables for how to set up a low-budget photo area at home. You can click through the images above to see some examples of "good" and "bad" photos (by my standards, which are probably much lower than some of the true photography buffs out there - critiques welcome!).
As an added bonus, you can use image editing software to clean up your pictures and get that super-crisp, nice white background that you might see in some of the staff Instructables (I use randofo's Simple Bots projects as inspiration). No need to spend hundreds of dollars on Photoshop - GIMP is an excellent open-source image editing program that will get the job done. I'm not going to include a "GIMP tutorial" as a subset of this Instructable, but if you get stuck trying to use GIMP, leave a comment and I can try to help. Jessyratfink also has a great Basic Photo Editing Instructable that you can check out.
Step 4: Circuit Diagrams!
No matter how great your photos are, you should never rely on them to tell people how to build your circuit. That brings us to the next rule: make circuit diagrams. I've seen two common mistakes here:
You can certainly argue that everyone should learn how to read a schematic - and I agree that they should, eventually. There are great resources available to help you with that. But for many first-timers, schematics look like an alien language, and a breadboard diagram will be much easier to follow.
"But I don't have thousands of dollars to spend on professional circuit-diagram-making software!", or "I've never made a circuit diagram before, and I have no idea how!", you say. Don't worry - assuming you have access to a computer since you're writing an Instructable, you have a few options, none of which are very daunting to learn. See the pictures above for some examples of each:
Believe it or not, Microsoft Powerpoint works to make breadboard diagrams or schematics, since all you really need to do is draw basic shapes. I used it to make the drawings in this Arduino project and this Raspberry Pi project before I discovered Fritzing or Inkscape (drawing on top of a breadboard image copied from Fritzing).
Remember: yes, breadboard diagrams mean more work for you, especially if you were just planning on going with photos, or if you used professional CAD software to make schematics. But, your goal is to make sure many people as possible can do your project. If you want to include schematics for advanced users, great - they'll skip over the breadboard diagrams anyway. Including a breadboard diagram could make the difference between someone successfully completing your project, or being too intimidated because they don't understand how to build the circuit.
*Fritzing uses a quasi-3D view of many of the "taller" breadboard components (LEDs, transistors, potentiometers etc), which makes them obscure several adjacent rows on the breadboard (or columns, depending on how they're oriented). This makes them take up more space than they would in a pure "top down" view of the breadboard, and can make it difficult to design a tight-packed, crowded circuit. Don't get me wrong though - Fritzing is great.
Step 5: General writing style
This advice especially goes to all my friends out there with engineering degrees. When you use a certain set of terminology everyday at your job (or every evening/weekend if you are an experienced hobbyist), it becomes second nature. You'll use words, phrases, and acronyms without giving a second thought to the idea that people outside your profession might not know what you mean. That might work great for communicating with your colleagues, but it isn't a great approach for Instructables. The great thing about the maker movement is that it encourages anyone to get into making stuff - and "anyone" includes kids young enough that they haven't ever had a physics class (let alone an electrical engineering course), or adults who took high school physics decades ago and haven't touched it since. That means a huge part of your audience might consist of people who have zero familiarity with things you consider bread-and-butter, like adding resistance values in series or the forward voltage drop across an LED. Even if you have a detailed materials list, professional-quality photos, and super-clear step-by-step breadboard diagrams, you could still leave someone just blindly following your assembly instructions without really understanding what's going on. The writing ties it all together - and if you put in some extra effort, you can really make your Instructable great.
Does that mean you need to write a step re-explaining Ohm's Law in every single one of your projects? Of course not - if you try to explain all of the basics every single time, you'll find yourself writing an entire electrical engineering textbook from scratch. There are, however, a few things you can do:
For the record, SparkFun has a whole part of their site loaded with tutorials and guides, as does Adafruit. There are also some good Instructables references like Basic Electronics by randofo. I find that Wikipedia articles tend to be a little heavy on technical language - so while they might be a good quick reference for "what is this thing," they're not the best place for a beginner-friendly explanation. If you can't find what you're looking for right away, spend a little time Googling for a good beginner-friendly resource. Your readers will thank you.
Step 6: Additional pointers
Here are a few additional pointers that I didn't think needed their own detailed steps:
Step 7: Summary
Ok, so that got a little long. Here's a recap of the main points.
Questions or suggestions? Want to know how this advice would apply specifically to your project? Leave a comment below or head over to The Clinic for more help. Thanks for reading!