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Instructions Old and New

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Paley
July 7, 2023

I want to discuss instructions. Yes, you read that correctly: instructions. But that should not be a new topic for you. Starting in grade school, the importance of instructions was engrained in our minds. If we followed them, we did well. But if we didn’t, there were consequences.

In this column, I want to describe what instructions are, how we use them today and for a bit of newsworthiness, how a medieval instruction manual helped organize the coronation of King Charles III.

What are instructions?

Let’s start with what instructions are. According to Olesia Vdovenko, “instructions are those step-by-step explanations of how to do something[.]” In everyday life, following instructions “is an important ability to practice[.]” Thus, it makes sense that no matter what the instructions are for, they should be easy to understand and written in a format helpful to those reading them. In some cases—including an elaborate and ancient ceremony—that helpful format includes illustrations.

Sabrina Dunham, et. al, in The Psychology of Following Instructions and its Implications in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, note the reason for the need for simplicity in instructions. Psychologists have found following instructions is a behavior. And when we receive instructions, in any format, our working memories retain only items we pay attention to. From this, it makes sense we should not be given too many instructions. And what we are given should be clear. Vdovenko agrees, writing, “good instruction writing requires” five things:

  1. Clear writing;
  2. A thorough understanding of what you are providing instructions for, including all its technicalities;
  3. Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes;
  4. Visualizing the procedure in great detail and capturing that on paper;
  5. Testing the instructions, using the type of reader you wrote for.

This makes sense. Even the ancients did not want to risk something getting lost in translation or forgotten because a long time has passed since the instructions were given. Thus, it should come as no surprise archeologists have found ancient stone tablets with elaborate illustrations that convey instructions on mundane daily tasks as well as elaborate religious ceremonies.

Some examples include:

  1. Kish Tablet (Iraq): illustrations show how to make red glass;
  2. Bamboo slips (China): decimal multiplication table;
  3. Sebayt (Egypt): instructions on teaching written in a simplistic language;
  4. Book of the Dead (Egypt): contained illustrations and drawings.

Instructions in our day-to-day lives.

Instructions are everywhere in our lives. In our personal lives, they tell us how to cook a recipe, how to set up a gaming system and how to apply for a loan. In our jobs, instructions ensure an end goal is broken down into mini tasks. This is how events are planned, how a budget is prepared and how complex, multi-step work tasks are completed. Instructions also ensure continuity by helping shorten transition times between old employees and new ones.

A perfect example: the coronation.

A perfect example of instructions that break down complex tasks is the Liber Regalis, a fourteenth-century manuscript containing instructions for the coronation of a British monarch. It made an appearance recently at the coronation of King Charles III.

The New York Times described the ceremony as “medieval” and “modern.” This is an apt observation. Every British monarch since William the Conqueror has gone through the elaborate and technically choreographed ceremony.

So, for several months, the organizers and participants rehearsed and polished every move.

The Liber Regalis has provided coronation instructions since the 1300s, with its vivid illustrations of various moments during the coronation service. The manuscript contains Latin descriptions of the religious significance of the coronation.

“While there are other sources to help with planning coronations in the present,” Westminster Abbey, the manuscript’s caretaker, notes on its website, “the Liber Regalis does demonstrate the core parts of the Coronation service which have always been and will continue to be essential.” Westminster Abby continues: “Although over time there have been some substantial changes, such as the shift from the service being in Latin to English, the Liber Regalis is a reminder that this Christian service has largely remained the same for hundreds of years.”


Even if not for a coronation, instructions play an important part in our social fabric. They tell us how to do things. And if history has taught us anything, people will continue to rely on instructions for centuries to come. They will look to our instructions for lessons in how people processed information and tasks they needed to perform.

Remember this the next time you follow the cooking instructions on the side of a frozen pizza box.

Author: Benjamin Paley graduated in 2022 from the Shepard Broad College of Law in 2022 with a J.D. and in 2018 from Florida Atlantic University with a Master of Public Administration degree. He can be reached at [email protected].

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