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A how-to is an informal, often short, description of how to accomplish a specific task. A how-to is usually meant to help non-experts, may leave out details that are only important to experts, and may also be greatly simplified from an overall discussion of the topic.
One of the earliest how-to books was published in 1569 by Thomas Wight and entitled, A booke of the arte and maner, how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees: With divers other new practise, by one of the Abbey of Saint Vincent in Fraunce by Leonard Mascall.
In the modern era how-tos can range from brief directions that aid in performing a task with which one is unfamiliar to full-length books, generally intended to assist or inspire life-changing methods and attitudes. They occur in the "self-help" genre, business books, and the hobby industry.
A similar concept can be seen in many of the [topic] For Dummies series of tutorials and also in many other introductory surveys entitled with the suffix "101" (based on academic numberings of entry-level courses).
How-to manuals have existed in some form for as long as people have spoken to each other. Before writing, they took the form of instruction in oral tradition. The older generation taught the younger through proverbs and parables, and when languages became written, these were written down.
When writing was invented and people learned to read, people began writing down their oral teaching traditions. This was the birth of the how-to manual. Eventually, the genre broadened to include instructions for more than just common life skills. Authors like Plato developed books like The Republic, a how-to manual about forming the perfect society. Later, Ovid wrote the "Ars Amatoria," which describes in a mock-didactic form how to seduce women. The Renaissance saw a new birth of the how-to manual. While in medieval times, the focus was on survival rather than literature, the Renaissance allowed people to explore more topics, and texts like Machiavelli's The Prince developed. As time advanced, how-to manuals broadened to the form that we see commonly today: texts giving instructions for various pursuits, like drawing, painting, swimming, and other hobbies. Now, these manuals are both printed and on the internet, and are easily accessed by everyone.
It is common practice to write the phrase as "HOWTO" in the Linux community. This may be for stylistic consistency with the related terminology FAQ and README. Another possible reason is that this makes it easier to find a how-to in search engines like Google as searching with the words "to" and "how" does not necessarily deliver relevant search results.
In the beginning, most how-tos on the Internet were the result of a complex process in which an author wrote a how-to for potential readers. After 2001, user added content played a more and more important role on the internet in a trend that is widely referred to as Web 2.0. This had a profound impact on the way in which how-tos are generated on the internet, as the readers and users were able to add to and improve the on-line content.