Thoughts on how-to guides

We have all read them — yes, you too. It’s difficult to admit that the cheap charms of the quota-filling and clickbaiting pseudo-knowledge many writers spew onto us caught our attention enough to spend 5 minutes on a website we have never heard of before and likely won’t ever visit again…

Unfortunately, even websites swimming in our trust will eventually slip and embrace the dark side of quota writing that loves nothing more than a good old-fashioned “With This Technique You Will Walk on Water Like Jesus” headline under which such elaborately researched and factually unquestionable truths will offer help to the needy as “Be Jesus”.

How to guides can be immensely helpful in quite a few circumstances but a large portion of them aren’t so much guides as they are regular, half-assed “over-the-fence-neighbor-advice” that is both extremely obnoxious and horribly lacking in nuance and context. The question justifiably arises — how are they popular enough that writers opt for them?

First of all, as I mentioned above, not all how-to guides are useless and in fact, we do need people who interpret complex studies, professional essays, technical manuals etc into easily readable and understandable points that guide us through something step-by-step. In a metaphorical way we are learning to fold an origami figure we’ve been planning to make but didn’t know how until someone gave us the how-to pages.

And writing a good how-to isn’t easy, it requires careful consideration as well as research. You have to be aware of your readers and how they process information — can you entrust them with field-specific terms? Which way of explaining terminology suits them best? Should you link to Wikipedia or quote? Should you break down points into subparts or write in larger paragraphs?

It also matters what sources a writer uses and this is one of the areas where the differences between a good and a bad how-to guide clearly shows. Sources aren’t equal thus solely having one doesn’t imply the information is valid. As John Oliver pointed it out in Last Week Tonight, coffee is either good or bad for you, depending on which study you are currently reading. A writer supposed to research the validity of whatever source they use if they wish to guide readers into favorable directions.

Then again, it’s becoming increasingly rare to even spot the declaration of any sources. “Studies show” and “scientists say” are both red flags indicating that the writer has likely pushed a popular belief or assumption from his ass straight onto the screen.

So long we are discussing consequenceless topics, such as “How to Perfectly Prepare Your Morning Coffee” or “How to Market Your Etsy Store in 12 Steps” the damage of this smelly cyber dump is almost nonexistent. However people seek how-to guides in all aspects of the increasingly stressful adult life — dating, friendships, family, child care, faith, finances and so on. The moment our actions have any influence on our or other people’s lives it becomes crucial that we are guided in the correct direction.

The recent controversy over the “How to Talk to Women Wearing Headphones” article is a prime example of how our struggles with relationships and human bonding are exploited. There are many issues with the type of how-to guides that want to assure us there’s a way get that one, unspecified person whom we spotted at Starbucks.

One being that it completely erases that person from the equation as an active participant. They are passively pushed into a situation that you aren’t even aware of them being comfortable with. This is a massive “fuck you” in the face of someone you supposedly wish to get close to, hence why the reaction might end up being a literal “fuck you”.

A how-to guide that generalizes both its readers and the people whom it writes about should be taken with a grain of salt. While it’s entirely possible that two women or two men or two children or two furries think and act alike, it’s more likely they don’t due little things called individualism and originality. No two people are exact copies of each other thus implying a single method will affect positively all, most or even a larger number is rather ridiculous on its own — combined with sorry excuses of dating and pick up advice they are downright harmful.

Trashy how-to guides are very easy to write and require little thought or planning. In fact, I can imagine a stressed writer realizing they need one more article before the month ends 12 hours from now, rushingly looking through Twitter trendings until he/she/other settles for “10 Ways to Spot a Liberal in Your Family” as a title before starting to embed random tweets followed by dated meme talk and embarrassing office humor…

The wording is intentionally vague, prone to generalizations and stereotyping because it’s meant to draw in traffic from the largest readership possible. A good how-to guide in comparison will address a specific group because it’s aim isn’t traffic but guidance for the benefit of the reader. Thus we will forever randomly stumble upon “How to Have a Hair Like Jesus” type of writings and will find “Tips for Single Mothers with Prepubescent Children During the Holidays” when specifically looking for “what to do on Christmas with 3 kids”.

Lastly, some of us are just that dumb and/or naive. There isn’t a nicer way to put it, some people enjoy the vague, meaningless life-lessons because they don’t require much intellectual investment, nor change in behavior. Especially the how-tos on person-to-person interactions tend to sell the feeling of change without actually requiring change. Case in point, the men who have been unsuccessfully addressing women on the streets and consider these “tips” useful don’t actually change behavior in a way that is less repulsive to women, they simply shift approach from one bad way of doing it to another bad way of doing it. The mothers who obsess over raising Einstein 2.0 won’t stop obsessing either, they will shift from one bad way of pushing the child to another bad way…So in the end a grossly flawed dumpster of a how-to guide can end up advising people to become even more horrible at whatever they are attempting than they were before.

Might as well be honest about it with an appropriate headline “5 Steps to Become A Worse You Than You Have Ever Been”.

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