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Tech Writing Handbook
Tech Writing Handbook 39
Tech Writing Handbook
Kyle Wiens, CEO, iFixit
Julia Blu, ff Lead Writer, iFixitChapter 0
Look before you write .........................................5
This handbook will teach you
how to create everything from
Being concise ..........................................................7
manuals to work instructions.
We’ll help you avoid the most
common pitfalls of tech writing, Crystal clarity ..........................................................10
from poor planning to outdated
Communicating with style ...............................13
Kyle Wiens, CEO, iFixit
Julia Blu, ff Lead Writer, iFixit
Photographing the process .............................19
Using other visuals ...............................................25
Organizing your content....................................30
Legal requirements ..............................................34
After you write ........................................................40
Appendix A: Deep dive
Brought to you by
Manufacturing work instructions .................42Tech Writing Handbook
So, you’ve decided to write a manual. We extend our hand in hearty
congratulations of the doityourself moxie that led you here.
Welcome to the world of technical communication
Now, at this very moment, you may be chuckling to yourself, “Technical communication … Isn’t
that an oxymoron”
We get it. Bad manuals happen … a lot. It’s a universal experience: You take Junior’s Christmas
gift out of the box, crack open the assembly manual, and, suddenly, everything goes horribly,
horribly wrong. Three hours later, all you have to show for your effort is a mutant tricycle.
Junior will not be pleased.
The best way to learn something is to have an expert teach you. But manuals are the next
best thing. Great manuals, like the ones from iFixit or Mackie, are teachers.Tech Writing Handbook
And we suspect that’s why you’re here. You want to write a manual that actually teaches people
how to do things.
We want to help. This program will teach you how to write howto guides, work instructions,
and service manuals — from planning, to writing, to publishing. We’ll also help you avoid the
most common pitfalls of tech writing.
Manuals are important. Whether you’re writing about how to perform maintenance on a CNC
machine, use video editing software, bake a soufflé, or rebuild an engine, you’re teaching
someone something new. If your manual succeeds, the reader will have done something that
wasn’t possible without your help. And that’s pretty amazing.Tech Writing Handbook
Look before you write
Writing ee ff ctive instructions is an achievement. Modern instructions
shouldn’t just be a list of useful directions. They embrace the aesthetic
and conventions of our time: highly visual, sleek, interactive,
and welldesigned. And when they’re done right, they’re
a pathway to empowerment.
Right now, you’re probably excited to get writing. But before you start galloping off into the
tech writing sunset, know this: most of the manuals and guides out there are written by peo
ple who have no firsthand knowledge of the subject matter. We think that’s a problem. It takes
more than just writing skill to write a good manual: it also takes understanding. There are two
laws of tech writing:
1. Know thy product and process
2. Talk to thy experts
Know thy products and process
The first requirement for tech writing is knowledge. You can’t teach someone how to do
something until you’ve done it yourself. If you’re writing assembly instructions, put the product
together. If you’re writing about software, use the program. If you’re writing a product manual,
you should know the product inside and out. Use it, take it apart, figure out how it works and
what it’s meant to do.
Once you think you know the process, try to teach it to someone else. Teaching is a great way
to solidify your knowledge, and what you learn from watching your student struggle will make
your manual better.Tech Writing Handbook
Talk to thy experts
If you’re not an expert at what you’re writing about, talk to someone who is. Chat with the
developers, technicians, or designers. Ask them to give you a walkthrough of the product,
process, or software. Ask them how it’s made, how it’s done, and why things are the way they
are. Then, keep asking if you need more help.
Glean as many stories from them as you can. Understanding the process that goes into
making something will clarify your understanding.
How manuals are usually written
Tech writers create a first draft based on initial functional specifications. Of course, the real
product barely resembles the spec by the time the manual is written. The first draft is a total
waste of time. As part of the frustrating review process, engineers give the writers hand scrib
bled notes. Tech writers assemble another draft, which engineers promptly rip apart. And the
process starts over again. Finally, the document is published.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The faster and more frequent the interactions between
engineer and writer, the better the final product will be.Tech Writing Handbook
Style tip 1: Be direct and get to the point. Then stop writing.
That rule applies doubly if you’re writing for the internet. Chrome, Safari, and Firefox are all
called web browsers instead of web readers for a reason. People don’t read web pages.
They scan, hunting and pecking for words and phrases that they find pertinent. The average
person spends just seconds on a web page, reading only about 20 of the text. The more
concise you are, the more information readers actually read.
Even paper manuals aren’t “well read,” in the classic sense. No one curls up at night with a
manual. Just like on web pages, people look for the information that they want. The more
textdense manuals are, the less likely people will dig through them.
Check out this example of an actual warranty statement from an actual kitchen appliance:
Example 1: We suggest you complete and return the enclosed product registration card
promptly to facilitate verification of the date of original purchase. However, return of the
product registration card does not eliminate the need for the consumer to maintain the
original proof of purchase in order to obtain the warranty benefits. In the event that you do
not have proof of purchase date, the purchase date for purposes of this warranty will be
the date of manufacture.
It’s only three sentences, but it’s dense, impersonal, and wordy. Here’s our revision:
Example 2: Please return your completed product registration card so we can verify your
purchase date. Keep the original proof of purchase to secure your warranty benefits. If you
don’t know the purchase date, give the manufacture date instead.
Isn’t that betterTech Writing Handbook
How to make paragraphs more concise
• Lead with the most important information: Frontload
useful details. Assume that your reader isn’t going to slog
through an entire paragraph. When you start with the
important stu, y ff our readers take the essential point with
them—even if they don’t read everything.
• Get rid of unimportant information: Readers want just
the facts, so eliminate any offtopic information. Ditch
extra bits and tangents. If you’re teaching us how to re
build a car engine, we don’t need to hear the production
Pro tip: Concision reduces as
history of the Mustang. Just give us directions.
many words as possible without
changing the meaning.
• Check your word count: Example 1 from above has 76
words. Our revised paragraph comes in at 37 words.
Saying the same thing in half the words is a great goal.
How to make sentences more concise
Short sentences are your friend: Writers eager to appear smart often use really, really,
very quite long sentences. Pro tip: Don’t do it. Overly long sentences are confusing. Aim for
sentences that have no more than 24 words. Yeah, we know—sometimes your product name
is longer than that. But do your best. Your paragraph will flow better with a healthy mix of
Here’s a long sentence from a backhoe manual:
Assemble small 90° adapter fitting to outlet port of filter base and orient so that free end
of fitting will point toward backhoe and angled about 30° upward from horizontal.
Now, here’s our revision with three short sentences instead of one long one:
Attach the small 90° adapter fitting to the port of the filter base. The free end of the fitting
should point toward the backhoe. Angle the fitting about 30° upward of horizontal.
Dump any empty words: Empty words just sit there, like a lump on a longwinded log. Take a
look back at the warranty example. The warranty used the phrase “In the event that.” But “in
the event that” is just a fancy way of saying “if.” Why use four words when one will do
Reduce the amount of “to be” verbs: “To be” verbs laze about without actually doing much.
Of course, don’t go overboard and weed every single one out of your verb population. Some
sentences require “to be” verbs—no way around it. But, where you have a choice, replace
lazy verbs with active verbs—ones that move the sentence forward. Fun fact: This paragraph
contains no “to be” verbs.Tech Writing Handbook
Here’s an example from a car assembly manual: “If you damage
any parts, it will probably be because they were either not stored
properly or, the wrong tool was used to install them.”
That’s three passive verbs in the same sentence. We eliminated
the lazy verbs for our revision: “Storing a tool improperly or using
the wrong installation tools can lead to damaged parts.“
Use passive voice strategically: Using passive voice doesn’t make
you a bad person, no matter what your English teacher said in 10th
grade. Just use passives purposefully. Unless you have a reason
for using passive voice, switch to active voice.
Here’s an example of passive voice from a user manual: “A booster seat should be used to
obtain proper seat belt fit.”
Who is obtaining the proper fit Who is doing the using That’s the thing about passive voice:
No one knows. Sentence construction isn’t an episode of Murder She Wrote. No one should
have to guess who did what. If you’re writing directions, start with a verb.
Let’s try rewriting that using active voice: “Use a booster seat to properly fit the child’s seat
belt.”Tech Writing Handbook
Imagine your words are a sliding glass door. Now imagine smashing into
the glass door—hard. That’s how clear your writing should be:
Avoiding confusion: A commonsense approach
Check out this product description:
Work has been proceeding in order to bring perfection to the crudely conceived idea of
a machine that would not only supply inverse reactive current for use in unilateral phase
detractors, but would also be capable of automatically synchronizing cardinal grammeters.
Such a machine is the TurboEncabulator.
Did you get that Yeah, we didn’t either.
The TurboEncabulator is completely made up. But, when a description of the TurboEncabu
lator ran as a joke in a 1946 edition of Time, most people thought it was real. Why Because
they’d seen so many other bad manuals and product descriptions like it before. The Tur
boEncabulator is a parody of technical writing and, as with all parodies, it’s funny because it’s
based on reality.
This, on the other hand, is 100 bonafide:
The delay knob moves the main sweep horizontally, and it pauses at 0.00s, mimicking a
mechanical detent. At the top of the graticule is a solid triangle symbol and an open trian
gle symbol. The symbol indicates the trigger point and it moves with the Delay time knob.
The symbol indicates the time reference point and is also where the zoomin/zoomout is
referenced. Tech Writing Handbook
Granted, this oscilloscope operator’s manual isn’t designed for a novice. But the writers un
necessarily mention a “mechanical detent” and a needless passive sentence “is referenced.”
It just makes the sentence hard to understand.
So, how do you avoid confusing your reader Keep in mind that real people will read your
writing, and they probably aren’t as technically knowledgeable as you are. Here are a couple
of suggestions to make your writing more humane:
Use plain language: Did you know that Plain Language
is a movement Plain language “is focused on readers.” It
Simplicity can be striking. We
ensures that your readers can “quickly and easily find what
learned something surprising
they need, understand what they need, and act appropri
reading On Writing Well by Wil
ately on that understanding.” Use plain English, words that
liam Zinsser: “Of the 701 words
most people understand, and short sentences.
in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural
Lay off the jargon: Or, something surprising while reading
Address, a marvel of economy
at least, use it as sparingly as possible. Jargon is only used
in itself, 505 are words of one
within a specific discipline. Chances are, no one outside of
syllable and 122 are words of two
your industry knows what it means. If you absolutely need
jargon, do your best to provide context, short definitions, or
even a glossary of terms. Sometimes, jargon just makes you
sound silly. Case in point:
ExtraLift Carriage Control Lever
Brings small items close to the top of the toaster,
for easy removal.
An ExtraLift Carriage Control Lever For easy toast remov
al, you say Good for you… but the rest of us just call that a
Don’t turn verbs into nouns: Verbs are happy being verbs.
Don’t force them to become nouns when they don’t want
to be nouns. Verby nouns makes your sentences unhappy,
which in turn makes your readers unhappy.
Here are some completely unparsable work instructions for
an automotive assembly line:
With the control levers (handles) fully depressed:
for the clutch—complete disengagement of the engine from the transmission; smooth
shifting of gears means correct adjustment of the clutch cable.Tech Writing Handbook
Now, we’re not sure what’s happening with the punctuation—and we’ll likely never sort it out.
But the nounification of those verbs, we can rectify. Here’s how we did it:
Completely disengage the engine from the transmission. Correctly adjust the clutch cable
for smooth shifting gears.
Articles are not the enemy: Articles are those little
words in front of nouns, like “the,” “an,” and “a.”
When writing instructions, people have a tenden
cy to skip articles altogether. They say things like,
“Disconnect cord from wall” instead of “Disconnect
the cord from the wall.” We have yet to suss out
the reason for this omission, but we assume that it
is rooted in a deepseated desire to sound like a
robot. Until the singularity strikes, feel free to use
articles whenever they are called for.
Turn it over to a novice: Sometimes it can be hard
to tell when your writing is unclear. Want to make
sure Give your writing to someone who knows
nothing about the subject matter. Try a Hallway
Usability Test: hand what you’re working on to five
random people who just happen to walk down the hall. Every time someone says, “I don’t
know what this means,” you’ve gone off the rails on the clarity train.
iFixit’s original field service manuals were tested on unsuspecting art students: we handed
them a computer and our new manual and watched them use the instructions to take it apart.
Every time they got confused, we knew we had a problem. We used what we learned from
their attempts to make the service manual better.
Don’t use weasel words: Some words weasel into your sentence and steal your oomph.
Words like “quite,” “mostly,” “slightly,” “seems,” “sort of,” “pretty,” and “somewhat” are builtin
sentence loopholes. They signal to the reader that you mean what you say … just not really. Is
the screw “pretty hard to tighten” or is it just hard to tighten Is running into your ex “fairly
uncomfortable” or is it just downright uncomfortable Say what you mean without wishy
washy words.Tech Writing Handbook
Communicating with style
Manuals aren’t pulp fiction page turners. But that doesn’t mean they have
to be a snoozefest. Instructions are important. People need them.
As writers, it’s our job to make reading manuals not feel like a chore.
Write with style.
Style doesn’t necessarily equate to poetic language and intense imagery. Every writer,
no matter how technical the material, has a style. Style is how you, as an author, choose to
communicate with your audience. It includes things like tone, humor, and the degree of
formality in your writing. Good style is about making decisions—about knowing what to
include and what to omit, when to follow the rules and when to break them.
You can break all the rules that we’ve listed, but you should
do so for a clear reason. For example, in Chapter 2 we told
It’s okay to write informally—but
you to be direct and avoid tangents, but sometimes the
that degree of informality should
best way to explain a feature is to include an anecdote. In
vary depending on subject mat
that specific moment, it’s fine to break that rule. The benefit
ter. If you’re writing maintenance
of storytelling outweighs the perks of being concise. Just
procedures for a nuclear power
don’t go around breaking rules without good reasons for
plant, it’s probably best to stick
to a formal, businesslike tone. If
Mackie’s user guides are an inspiration. Mackie’s style is
you’re writing instructions on how
instantly recognizable. They know their audience—pro
to build a backyard barbecue,
fessional sound engineers—and how to reach them. They
feel free to write in a style that is
address their readers like friends, while still passing on
friendly and informal.
detailed instructions and expertlevel knowledge.Tech Writing Handbook
Here are some style highlights of Mackie’s style:
Humorous instructions: Realism:
Pack yourself a big lunch and go for This icon will lead you to some
a nice walk outside. Have a picnic explanations of features and
and lie back and dream. Things are practical tips. Go ahead and
going to be so good now. skip these if you need to leave
the room in a hurry.
The dualpurpose mute/alt 34 switch is a Mackie signature. When Greg
was designing our first product, he had to include a mute switch for
each channel. Mute switches do just what they sound like they do. They
turn off the signal by “routing” it into oblivion. “Gee, what a waste,” he
reasoned. “Why not have the mute button route the signal somewhere
useful, like a separate stereo bus”
So mute/alt 34 really serves two functions—muting (often used during
mixdown or live shows), and signal routing (for multitrack and live work)
where it acts as an extra stereo bus.
Want to develop your own distinctive style
Here are a few considerations:
Humor: Everyone likes humor. Apply with extreme care, however. Humor and wit is almost
impossible to capture in translation, so only use it if you’re writing for a local audience. After
all, what’s funny in the U.S. might not be funny in Iceland, or Turkmenistan, or Japan. Plus,
humor is hard to get right. It takes writing, rewriting, whittling, and gumption. And sometimes,
it’s not appropriate—don’t use it in precautions, and not in anything that may have legal rami
fications. Also, sarcasm may sound funny in your head, but it usually just comes off as mean.Tech Writing Handbook
Despite the drawbacks, humor is sometimes the most memorable way to make a point.
You can talk about capacitors until you’re blue in the face, but make people laugh and they’ll
Some tips on writing funny:
• Only write it down if it makes you laugh.
• Erase the funny part and write it better.
• Stop trying to be funny. Funny works best when it’s spontaneous.
• Don’t be mean to real people. The only actual person you’re allowed to make fun
of is yourself.
• Read something hilarious before you write. We recommend Dave Barry, funnyman journalist
• Humorist Sherman Alexie suggests, “Write naked—that will make you laugh.” Don’t ever try
this in the office. It’s still hilarious, but you’ll probably get fired.
Set the tone: Your writing can be serious, authoritative, journalistic, friendly, humorous, or
anything else you’d like. As a writer, you dictate the tone. But don’t change halfway through
your document. Find one you like and stick with it.
Addressing the audience: The classic writing conundrum: Can a writer say “you” when
referring to the audience Sometimes people avoid the secondperson pronoun to achieve
a sense of distance and impartiality—especially on scientific topics. But if you are telling
readers what to do, “you” and “your” is perfectly acceptable. In fact, when used purposefully,
the informal “you” sounds more natural and encouraging.
Ex: “How to upload images onto your computer” vs. “Uploading images to a computer.”
Ex: “Be careful when you pull the wire from its connector” vs. “The wire should be pulled
from the connector carefully.”
Ultimately, the choice is up to you.
Using contractions: To use contractions or not to use
contractions That’s the question. We have the answer:
Something to consider: If you plan
‘Tis nobler to use them. Contractions shorten your sen
to translate your manual into another
tences and improve the overall flow. If you doubt us on
language, using a lot of contractions
this point, try reading a paragraph without contractions
can make the job more difficult.
aloud. It sounds unnatural. Swap in contractions and the
paragraph sounds human again.Tech Writing Handbook
Short paragraphs are key: The rule of a wellformed, fivesentence paragraph is suspended
in tech writing. You don’t need theses or topic sentences for manuals, and you don’t need
long paragraphs to defend your assertions.
You can start a new paragraph whenever you start a new thought. (See what we did there)
Readers like short paragraphs. Short is easier to skim. We’re fans of using short, declarative
bullets to break up content into little readable chunks.
Internationalization: If you plan on publishing for an international audience, your manual will
need to be translated, which is an expensive process. The right style will make the translation
process much easier. Some general style tips are the same: It’s even more important to limit
your vocabulary to simple/common words. But when writing for translation, avoid jokes and
idioms (they don’t translate well), use contractions in moderation, and be consistent with your
phrasing. This tutorial, for example, would be very hard to translate into another language.
We’ve used a lot of colloquialisms and idioms, quite a bit of of creative language, and we
didn’t bother to limit our vocabulary. That’s a decision we made to keep this (long) tutorial
both informational and engaging. These are the kinds of tradeoffs you’ll have to make as a
There’s enough nuance to internationalization to fill a book, so check out The Content Wrangler
for more tips.
http://thecontentwrangler.com/2011/07/08/10tipsforwritinginternationaltechnicalcontent/Tech Writing Handbook
Writing never takes place in a vacuum (unless you’re literally in a vacuum,
which would be incredibly uncomfortable). When you’re writing a manual,
you’re always writing to someone. Figure out who that is. The more you
know about them, the better your writing will be.
Optimize your manual to match the target audience’s expertise. The Books for Dummies
series, for example, has successfully targeted one narrow audience: the clueless newbie. For
Dummies publishers have a book on everything from writing résumés to coaching children.
Each one features diagrams, illustrations, extended explanations, context, and basic tips.
Auto Repair for Dummies has a whole chapter dedicated to changing your car’s oil. It covers
what oil does in the car, the pros and cons of synthetic oil, and instructions—15 pages of ‘em.
If the book was entitled Auto Repair for Experts, however, that whole chapter could be boiled
down to a single sentence: “Change the oil.” Unless they’re changing the oil on a supercar, no
car expert will need 15 pages of instruction for an oil change.
Knowing your audience means knowing what to include and what not to include. It means you
know how many steps it’ll take to explain something to them. It means you know how long
your manual is going to be and what sort of language you can get away with using.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Reading level = writing level
You shouldn’t write over your audience’s head. You also shouldn’t write drastically under it,
although in our experience this is rare.Tech Writing Handbook
FleschKincaid Readability Tests are the most common way
to ascertain a text’s readability. FleschKincaid scores ease of
The average American adult
reading on a scale of 0100, with 100 being the easiest to read.
reads at about a ninthgrade
Another FleschKincaid test estimates reading level (K12).
To show you just how wide manuals can miss the mark, we decid
ed to test a manufacturer manual for a popular product—Apple’s
MacBook Pro—on the FleschKincaid scale. The Apple user manual scored an abysmal –2.2
and required a reading grade level of 24. (In case you were wondering: no, grades don’t go
that high.) To put this in context, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is at an 11th grade reading level.
Here’s a safe rule of thumb: A user manual shouldn’t be more dic ffi ult to read than Shakespeare.
iFixit’s repair manual for the same device scored at a fourth grade reading level. The lower the
reading level, the more likely your readers will be able to understand what you’re saying.
Not sure how to gauge the reading level of your writing You can use sites like The Readability
Test Tool to measure readability on existing web sites. Word and Excel already have readability
tools built into them—they just need enabling.
What can you assume your audience already knows Technical writers often forget what
their audience knows and, especially, what they don’t. Mechanical engineers sometimes
write manuals that sound like they are written for other mechanical engineers—but if the
target audience isn’t super tech savvy, then rambling on about shear load, helical gearing,
and kinematic chains without an explanation is a problem.
Military organizations are amazingly bad at this. They have so many acronyms that you
have to spend months learning them all before you can communicate with anyone. Here’s
an example from an Army Shipboard Operations manual:
a. Emergency Training. Emergency requirements or training necessary for imminent deploy
ment usually will come from DA through a MACOM such as FORSCOM. Army aviation
units will receive the higher command's assistance in scheduling ships and other resources.
The standard practice in technical writing is to spell out an acronym on its first usage, putting
the acronym in parentheses. This ensures clarity for all readers.Tech Writing Handbook
Photographing the process
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. They’re right. Don’t just tell
readers how to do something—show them.
Historically, photos haven’t gotten much love in manuals—even in service manuals where
photos might be the difference between poorly installed brakes and a car that stops when
told. The holy grail of standardization, ISO 9001 documentation, is usually text only. Given
the historical expense of printing costs, this made sense. But that was then, and this is now.
Welcome to the digital revolution: the world is your highresolution oyster.
iFixit teaches people how to
repair their electronics. That’s
dicey business. After all, there
are tons of little components
and little connectors in any
given device. Take ZeroInser
tion Force (ZIF) connectors, for
example. Not only are they tiny,
but they’re equipped with even
tinier, delicate flaps that have
to be pried up and flipped over.
Do it the wrong way—a com
mon mistake made by newbie
technicians—and you could
break the entire device. Those
are some pretty high stakes.Tech Writing Handbook
Here are iFixit’s text instructions for freeing the ZIF battery connector in an iPod Nano:
Hold down the lightcolored socket with your finger. Then use the tip of a spudger to flip
the ZIF cable lock 90º upwards.
And while those are good instructions, they aren’t enough. There’s too much room for error.
So, iFixit includes highresolution, color photos with every single step. That way, you can
zoom in and figure out exactly what the component looks like, where the flap is, and how
to pry it up. Photos like this one have saved the life of many a ZIF connector:
Photography brings instructions to life. It makes things more clear. Compare an Ikea manual
to iFixit’s selfrepair guides. Depending on the level of clarity, repairing your iPhone can be
more accessible than assembling a set of cupboards. That’s the power of photography.Tech Writing Handbook
Tips for photography
Not a photography expert Not to worry Modern cameras make it surprisingly easy—and
fast—to take useful photos. Our tips and tutorials will have you shooting like a pro in a flash.
Setting up the photoshoot
Our company, Dozuki, helps
The most important component for taking pictures is choosing
companies create stepby
the right camera. We highly recommended that you use a digi
step procedures for service
tal single lens reflex (DSLR) camera to take professionalquality
manuals, industrial work
guide images. If you don’t have a DSLR camera, any pointand
instructions, and more.
shoot camera with at least 6 megapixels will capture images with
No matter what camera you decide to use, every
handheld camera is prone to shakes and vibrations
that cause blurry photos. Using a tripod, even a
cheap one, keeps your images sharp.
The better your lighting is, the less you have to
postprocess the photo. Unfortunately, your old
bedside lamp just won’t cut it. Despair not You can
construct a relatively inexpensive DIY photography
studio out of simple light fixtures, the right bulbs,
and a clean, white surface.
If you’re investing in a professional lighting setup, a
proper photographic light fixture should house three
or four individual light bulbs. To cut down on harsh
glare, slip a diffuser over the front of each fixture.Tech Writing Handbook
Taking the perfect photo
• Aperture and ISO: Understanding aperture and ISO will help you take professionallevel
photographs. The aperture setting changes the amount of light that comes through your
lens; folks commonly refer to it as “fstop.” The ISO setting changes the sensitivity of the
camera sensor at the expense of image graininess. We explain both in much greater detail
in our tutorial, so use it to practice, practice, practice by taking sample photos before you
start documenting your procedure.
• Shutter speed: Just pressing the shutter button can cause a camera to shake—producing
blurry images. Blurriness is unacceptable. Use a remote shutter release, camera tethering
software like Nikon Capture.Tech Writing Handbook
• Framing: When taking photos for your manual, place whatever you’re doing in the center of
the frame and from your user’s point of view.
• Close up: Zoom in to get detailed shots of specific actions, especially when performing
smaller or more intricate tasks. But be careful that the viewer doesn’t lose context—provide
an intermediate view in addition to the überzoomed shot.
Using your hands
If you are documenting instructions, we recommend that
your images include hands whenever possible. Hands are
Pro tip: Don’t cover up the action
great at demonstrating the actions described in each step.
with your hands. Sometimes this
And not drawings of hands—actual hands attached to actual
means holding an item or tool
people performing the actual tasks that users actually want
differently than you normally
to do. User manuals that feature photos of hands working
would. It may feel awkward, but
on intricate components give users a better idea of how to
the resulting image will show the
replicate the desired action.
action much more clearly. The
iFixit manuals have trained millions of novices in the craft
second image demonstrates an
of electronics repair by using stepbystep highres, color
overhand knot much more
photos of hands demonstrating the process. Seeing those
ec ffi iently than the first image does.
pictures makes it easy for users to repeat the same process
on their own.Tech Writing Handbook
Processing your photos
• Programs: Pictures rarely come out perfect and will require some editing to make them
usable for manuals. There are many photo editing programs, like Photoshop () and Gimp
(free), available. Learn a decent one and start editing your photos.
• Color and exposure: When editing, adjust the light levels to balance whites and blacks
properly. Adjust color hues and saturation to correct color errors in the background.
• Editing: Not all work environments are perfectly clean, so subjects may end up with hair,
dust, dirt or other imperfections on them. Remove blemishes, if possible, with a little editing
• Markup: When using photography, We suggest using markup to highlight certain areas of
the photograph, like in the example below (Dozuki already has a builtin markup system).
Multicolored boxes and circles are great for highlighting areas you want readers paying
attention to. The markup colors below have been chosen so that the colorimpaired can
differentiate between them.Tech Writing Handbook
Using other visuals
Videos, illustrations, diagrams and graphs work wonders when you want
to explain exactly how something works and how to assemble
or fix it. Even better, visuals allow you to be more concise.
Diagrams and illustrations
Diagrams and illustrations are a great
way to give readers a big picture layout
of devices, parts, and components. The
more visuals you include, the fewer words
you have to use. They are also especially
good at breaking down hardtosee or
hidden elements, like the wiring schematic
of a car.
Here’s an example diagram from a Mackie
Onyx Analog Mixer, an extremely complex
machine with lots of hookups, plugs, and
doodads. This great diagram clearly shows
what those plugs do:
Use images only when they support,
replace, or augment the text.Tech Writing Handbook
Mackie diagrams are amazing. But in our experience, bad diagrams outnumber the good
ones. Most of the time, diagrams fall short because they are not descriptive enough. Others
are poorly rendered, too cluttered, or not augmented with enough written explanations.
Imagine trying to put something together when the diagram looks like this:
Or, how about this
When you’re in the midst of a complicated repair or installation job, bad diagrams won’t
be helpful.Tech Writing Handbook
The only thing people love more than a picture is a moving picture. If you are publishing
digitally, you can embed videos directly into your manuals.
People are drawn to instructional videos. They mimic that
oneonone, expert/apprentice relationship that we all crave
If you’re internationalizing your
when learning something for the first time. Video instructions
manuals, avoid using text in
are so popular that YouTube has now become the internet’s
diagrams or overlaying text on
default howto authority for everything from computer repair
photos—otherwise you’ll need
to equipment setup to physics. A search for “how to” on
to produce separate versions of
YouTube’s video archives returns over 19 million hits. A single
each image for every locale.
YouTube tutorial on how to fold a tshirt in under 2 seconds
has been viewed millions of times.
Videos can make learning easy, but—big warning—they are also easy to overuse or mess up.
If your reader is looking for specific information, videos can be frustrating. No one wants to
watch a 20minute video when they’re only interested in locating a screw.
Weigh your options before you make video instructions your primary source of documenta
tion. Most of the time, a single photograph or an amazing diagram will be more functional at
identifying connectors, parts, and processes. And, unlike videos, photographs can do it at a
single glance. Only use video when other visuals won’t cut it.
Use videos when…
• Demonstrating rotation procedures, like how
to turn an outoftheway valve.
• Demonstrating involved actions, like thread
ing a sewing machine, picking a lock, or tying
• Demonstrating states that do not translate
via photography or text, like testing if the cus
tard you’re making is “jiggly” enough, identify
ing which clanking sound an engine is making,
or determining if the concrete you’re mixing is
• Demonstrating how much force to use, like
how hard you have to pull on an iMac cover
before it actually pops o.ffTech Writing Handbook
If you’ve decided that video guides are the way to go, then apply the rules of writing to the
editing room. Video guides should be concise, demonstrative, and clear.
We’ve filmed a lot video guides that can tand alone, but we’ve found that the most effec
tive way to use videos is to embed them directly into online, stepbystep guides. Short video
clips work very well alongside diagrams, photographs, and text to augment procedural
Frequent problems with video instructions…
Problem: Translating audio requires an additional workflow while localizing manuals.
Solution: Video without verbal instructions.
Problem: Updating videos for new manual revisions is more inconvenient and expensive
than updating photos and text.
Solution: Use videos judiciously, avoid faces that may not be available for future videos,
and keep the original video project files in your version control system.
Problem: Scanning videos for specific information is slower than scanning text and photos.
Solution: Keep videos short and the information specific and targeted.
Problem: You can’t search for information inside videos.
Solution: Subtitle videos and make the text searchable, or replicate the information in the
Problem: Manuals sometimes need to be printed. Photos degrade gracefully even when
you’re printing in black white, but video information is lost altogether.
Solution: Use other visuals unless videos are strictly necessary. Choose a useful poster
Here’s our rule of thumb: inmanual videos should be no longer than 30 seconds per step.
Sometimes just 3 seconds of video is enough to get the job done. The shorter the video, the
better.Tech Writing Handbook
With Dozuki, you can integrate
warning symbols into the neces
sary step. But even without
Dozuki, you’re not flying blind.
The International Organization
for Standardization (ISO) has a
standard, international set of
warning and safety icons, while
the American National Standards
Institute (ANSI) publishes safety
standards for the United States.
Consult both organizations’
standards if you are publishing
Icons and symbols
The first rule of any profession is to do no harm (especially since doing harm opens a company
up to litigation, as we discuss in Chapter 9). So, make your best effort not to set people on fire
or expose them to electrical shock.
Where harm is possible, say so. But here’s the rub: since most readers skim, you need more
than bold lettering to grab a reader’s attention. That’s where icons and symbols come in
Some manuals, like the For Dummies series, include 12 different icons that readers need
to remember. No one will ever hold that many symbols in their head. Don’t use a dozen
symbols when just a handful will do. We recommend, at the very least, using “Note,”
“Caution,” and “Warning” as safety designations. Not all icons translate. So, be sure to use
universally accepted icons, like a splat symbol, or those published by ISO or ANSI.Tech Writing Handbook
Organizing your content
There is no single correct way to organize a manual.
The manual you create should reec fl t whatever product or process
you’re writing about. Here are some common sense solutions to
organizational conundrums we’ve run into.
Outlines are a necessary part of writing. Period. Outlines are like a roadmap. They
give you direction; they tell you where to go. Working without an outline is like
trying to get from California to New York and only knowing you need to go east.
Put yourself in the place of the audience
Try to imagine things from your target audience’s point of
view. Anticipate where your audience might have questions or
how they might logically approach a task. Organize accordingly.
People read manuals because they are trying to figure out how to do
something. Organize the body of your manual by activity, like “Quick
Startup Guide,” “Troubleshooting,” “Replacing the Ignition Switch,” or
“Using your Samurai Sword for Zombie Defense”—whatever task you
think your reader might be interested in accomplishing.Tech Writing Handbook
People love lists. On the internet, lists are almost as popular as cats. Unfor
tunately, we’ve yet to find a legitimate way for nonveterinarians to integrate
cats into technical documentation (oh, we’ve tried). Lists, though, are a go.
Whether numbered or bulleted, short lists are easy to understand and highly
Not sure what sort of sections or subsections might be appropriate for your manual There
are lots of readymade templates available on the internet. Reference them, but resist the
urge to use them completely. Design your own structure. Take a look around at other manuals
in a similar genre. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like about them. Use that infor
mation to make your manual better.
Writing useful instructions
We’ve been writing instruction manuals for years. One of the toughest lessons we’ve learned
is that great instructions don’t happen on the first try. They come after trialanderror, experi
menting, and rewriting.
Sometimes, readers fail in ways that you can never anticipate. We learned that one the hard
way. On a PowerBook G4, the optical drive connector is extremely hard to see. Our writers
had a hard time explaining how to get the drive off without breaking the connector. When we
published the guide online, someone used the guide and our instructions broke his computer.
After we apologized profusely, we rewrote the guide. And then we rewrote it again. And again.
Until it was perfect. Here’s the final version of the rewritten text:
We learned from that experience. Now, we don’t wait until people break their stuff to rewrite
our instructions. We solicit feedback from our users right away. When we released repair kits
for Xboxes and PS3s, we asked purchasers to give us feedback on the instructions. Then we Tech Writing Handbook
used their feedback to rewrite our guides. We’ve also integrated a comment feature in our
guides, so users can share with each other where they ran into trouble and how they over
came the obstacle.
Find some way to get feedback on your instructions. You don’t need a web site to do it. Being
on the receiving end of negative feedback is one of the toughest things you can do—but it is
also the most important thing you’ll do for your writing. Bribe friends and coworkers for feed
back, if you need to. Cookies, alcohol, or promises of babysitting—whatever it takes.
Making this feedback public can be surprisingly productive. Our readers tell us that the com
ments on iFixit manuals are often just as useful as the instructions themselves.
The nice thing about writing instructions is that they’re easy to organize. Just arrange things
in the order they need to be done. We’ve found that stepbystep instructions with highreso
lution pictures, diagrams, and videos are the most effective way to design instructions. Bulky
paragraphs aren’t necessary if you let visuals do most of the talking.
When it comes to instructions, an ounce of preparation prevents a pound of frustration. Here
are some great things to tell your readers before they start working:
• Difficulty level: Novices should go into a procedure knowing how hard it’s going to be.
• Time required: No one likes to figure out four hours into a task that it’s going to take four
more hours. Especially if they needed it done 30 minutes ago. Make sure the estimated time
takes into account the time involved for any prerequisite disassembly. If you’re an expert
and you’re writing for a novice audience, assume it’ll take them anywhere between 2050
longer to perform the same task. Account for that discrepancy in your time estimates.
• Materials required: If tools, parts, and materials are required, list them upfront.
Intelligent content reuse
When you’re writing a lot of instructions for a single
device or machine (or lots of similar devices), reusing
content saves a lot of time, work, and space.
Complicated tasks require a lot of dependent pro
cedures. For example, whether you are changing
the brake pads on your car or rotating your tires,
both tasks require you to remove the wheels first.
We like to call dependent tasks—like removing the
wheels—prerequisites, because completing the pro
cedure is required before you can go on to complete
the whole task.Tech Writing Handbook
Reuse prerequisite tasks instead of rewriting them every time they appear in a manual. Most
print manuals put prerequisite guides in a single place and ask readers to flip back and forth
between the sections. So, the prerequisites are listed as a step.
• Step 1: Put your right foot in.
• Step 2: Remove the wheels. See pg. 34.
• Step 3: Put your right foot out.
When you finish with the prerequisite task, you flip back to the original instructions and move
on to step three—like a convoluted Choose Your Own Adventure book. Flipping back and
forth between sections isn’t terribly convenient, but that’s the best you can do on paper. On
fancy computers, however, you can do a whole lot better.
Don’t treat computer manuals like print manuals. Doing so imposes unnecessary limitations
on a far more advanced technology. Instead of asking readers to click back and forth through
different web pages for prerequisites, integrate prerequisite guides directly into the tutorial.
That way, all the instructions your readers need are on one web page.
For example, here’s an iFixit guide for removing a MacBook battery. The battery removal
guide is a prerequisite for the RAM installation guide for the same computer. You can see
that the first two steps of the MacBook RAM guide are actually the steps for removing the
battery. Instead of asking our users to click back and forth between individual procedures like
you would in a printed book, the Dozuki software lets us list them all on the same page for a
seamless user experience.
Many publishing platforms allow you to intelligently reuse content, labeling some procedures
as prerequisites for automatic insertion into the instructions that require them.Tech Writing Handbook
Thus far, this handbook has covered topics that are nice to include,
but there are a couple of things you must include in your manual.
Documentation should prepare readers to safely use the product. US law stipulates that a
manual must list any hazards that may occur “from the intended or unintended but reasonably
foreseeable use of its products.” You have a legal duty to warn consumers when:
1. The product supplied is dangerous
2. The danger is or should be known by the manufacturer
3. The danger is present when the product is used in the usual and expected manner
4. The danger is not obvious or well known to the user
Failure to “adequately” warn consumers opens your company up to lawsuits. So, what exactly
makes a warning “adequate” Good question. Adequacy is almost impossible to define. It’s
much easier to define what is not adequate. Here’s a few common ways that manuals fall
• Failure to warn users about how to properly use a product.
• Failure to warn against risks from proper use of a product.
• Failure to warn against any reasonably foreseeable misuses of a product.
The key commonality is that everything listed could result in bodily harm or death.
Safety information must also be accessible to your readers. So, warnings should stand out
from the rest of the documents, possibly with icons, colored fonts, or bolding. They should Tech Writing Handbook
also be easy to understand. A confusing warning is just as bad as not warning users at all.
Many companies list warnings at the beginning of the manual to give them prominence.
That’s fine, but also list hazards where the reader might encounter them in your instructions.
Of course, it’s tempting to frontload your manual with
pages and pages of warnings as a preemptive strike
against lawsuits. Lots of companies do it. Every elec
tronic product is dangerous if you stick your tongue
in the socket along with the plug. Just be reasonable.
We’ve seen warnings that border on the bizarre: “Do
not eat your iPod Shuffle”; “Do not use your hairdryer
while sleeping”; “Do not use this rotary drill as a home
dentistry kit,” etc.
Before you brainstorm a list of improbablebutpossible warnings, we’ve got a warning of our
own: Too many warnings—especially ridiculous ones—make the whole safety section seem
silly. Then, no one takes the warnings seriously—not even the real ones. Remember: You only
have to caution users when a danger is “reasonably foreseeable.” Aim for the Goldilocks
principle: find the middle ground between not enough warnings and way too many.
Liability laws vary by country. European liability regulations are decidedly strict, and Asian
liability laws are starting to follow suit. If you plan on selling your wares internationally, you
will have to account for various regional liability requirements. Learn about liability concerns
and relevant international product liabilities before you publish your manual. As always,
consult a lawyer for specific information on how to construct warnings.Tech Writing Handbook
These days, you have a ton of choices for how to publish your manual.
Print is the classic choice. PDFs are essentially a printed book in digital
form, and are the default choice for most manuals today. PDFs get the
job done, but are rapidly becoming obsolete as people move to
consuming manuals on mobile devices.
A lot of companies are evolving the manual with online publishing platforms. There are wikis,
like this fanmade user’s guide for SecondLife. Instead of the standard PDF, Sony created
a custom, online instruction manual for the PlayStation 3. Many companies are deploying
tablets onto the factory floor, replacing PDF work instructions with mobile documentation
These days, everyone has a smartphone in his pocket and a tablet on her bedside table.
Information is mobile—your manual should be, too. Optimize your manual for mobile devices.
PDF manuals don’t work well on phones. They’re too dense, rooted in paper’s legacy fixed
http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/User27sManualTech Writing Handbook
width format, and difficult to search and navigate. They work better on tablets, but miss out
on much of the advanced functionality that's now possible.
Information in your manual should also be easy to find, no matter how you choose to publish.
Users hate flipping or scrolling through hundreds of pages to find the one sentence they
want. So, if you’re publishing on the web, integrate a kickbutt search feature. If you’ve written
a hefty print manual, write a table of contents and an index.
Making your manual easy to browse on the web has another
key advantage: it’s available through Google. Most users
google information before they go to the manufacturer’s
Check out iFixit’s native mobile
website. Google is the primary user interface for iFixit—most
apps for Android and iOS if you
people find our instructions via web searches.
need some inspiration. The soft
ware is open source, so you can
Make your manual easy to find on the web. Think about what
even copy the code to build your
potential users might type into their Google search boxes
own mobile manual.
when they’re troubleshooting, and use that language in your
manual. Plan to adapt your manual in the future as people
shift their search terms.
Accessibility also means optimizing for different types of audiences. Done right, web manuals
are very accessible to blind readers, and anyone can use a translation service to see a web
manual in their home language. It’s impossible to get the same sort of accessibility with a
paper manual, and it’s hard to do with a PDF.
Getting better: Knowledge management
Publishing isn’t the end of your job. Documentation needs to evolve. Make no bones about it:
your manual will go out of date at some point—and often in ways you’d never expect.
• Sometimes, the writing itself is the problem. Hey, we’re human and writing is hard. Every
once in awhile, writers make mistakes. And when that happens, people start breaking
things. That’s okay. Version 1.0 of any product—software, hardware, or manual—is never
• You may find an easier way to approach a task. Maybe it's easier to use a flathead screw
driver than a Phillips; maybe there's this new tool that makes something incredibly easy; or
maybe an assembly line worker found a faster way of assembling the product, etc.
• Other times, the product itself changes. The production line can change after the manual
was written: they add screws, reconfigure the mold, or make other minor (or nosominor)
Plan for the inevitable. If it’s hard to publish changes, you’ll be likely be less than eager to Tech Writing Handbook
update your documentation as frequently as you should.
If it’s at all possible, we suggest a publication method you can easily update. Unfortunately,
there is simply no easy way to update a paper manual. In an Air Brake and Train Signal Manual
from 1910 (pictured below), the authors literally pasted updates directly over the outdated
information. In 2012, Toyota had to recall thousands of cars because they botched a couple
sentences in the manual.
Publishing a PDF doesn’t offer much more flexibility. If you’ve released 1,000 PDF manuals
onto 1,000 laptops, you’ll have to update all of them manually. No fun. And what happens if a
safetycritical update misses 5 of your field technicians That’s just one reason we tend to
advocate central data storage instead of the standard print/PDF workflow.
You need your customers—not just to
keep your business alive, but to also to
keep your content thriving. Your customers
make you better. The more feedback you
have, the more suggestions you get, and
the better your documentation (and your
company) will be.
Customers can point out where text is
confusing; they can tell you when an
image just isn’t helpful. Recruit users to
help you improve your manual. If you Tech Writing Handbook
publish online, give users a directed QA for feedback and editing suggestions. If you
publish in print, give readers someone they can contact for questions and feedback.
API means write once, publish everywhere
Google Maps is installed on millions of smart phones in America. Even though Google is
constantly updating and expanding their maps, users always get the latest version of the
app. How is that possible Because the information people want isn’t downloaded into their
phones—and they don’t have to redownload the application every time Google updates
the map. The information lives elsewhere and constantly publishes updates to all connected
devices. It’s an API.
API stands for Application Programming
Interface: if you publish online, it will help you
seamlessly update your documents. Tradition
ally, document updates are pushed through
Word, maybe to inDesign, then PDF, then onto
the web, to techs, and to the archives. And if
you make a change to the text in Word, that
change needs to make its way to every other
format. By the time everyone has an updated
copy, it’s time to update again. Using an API
allows you to make changes to one central
hub. Those changes are then pushed out
immediately to every single other publishing
Modern documentation formats like oManual include API specifications, and documentation
systems that support mobile apps are starting to take advantage of this.Tech Writing Handbook
After you write
Creating your instructions is just the beginning. Once your first draft is
done, it’s time to test it in the field, edit for concision, deploy your work,
listen to your users, and manage future updates.
Edit, edit, edit. We cannot overemphasize the
importance of this step. Edit for organization, content,
flow, and grammar. It’s important that your readers
get a polished product. After all, when it comes to
instructions and manuals, proofreading can be the
difference between a snappy sentence and a disaster.
Take these two sentences: “The ultimate guide for sum
mertime fun: grilling kids and family” and “The ultimate
guide for summertime fun: grilling, kids, and family.”
That’s right. The only thing standing between you and
cannibalism are a handful of commas. That’s why we
edit and proofread over and over again. Then, when we
think it’s perfect, we get other people to edit it, too.
Read your manual aloud to yourself. You’ll find errors if
you can listen to it.Tech Writing Handbook
Test out your instructions on someone new. Ask your tester to follow the instructions from
beginning to end. If they wind up with a finished product instead of a monstrosity, then
you’ve done your job as a writer. Be sure to ask your tester what sections were hard to
understand and why.
Have a plan for updating your documentation. If you write a manual, you’ve got to commit
yourself to keeping it relevant. Read through your documentation every six months or so to
make sure that it is still uptodate.
Congratulations. We tip our hat to you. Welcome to our technical writer cabal. It’s small,
but exclusive. We’ve even got a secret handshake, which we’ll teach you once we acquire
a secret clubhouse. But don’t hold your breath. We’re currently in limbo, hampered by the
fact that we won’t tell our real estate agent the secret location of our supersecret clubhouse.Tech Writing Handbook
APPENDIX A: DEEP DIVE
Manufacturing work instructions
Work instructions may take a lot of time to plan and create, but great
instructions will signic fi antly benefit production. They are the pathway
to incremental improvement—the cornerstone of lean manufacturing.
Every employee has a slightly different way of doing things. Each has a different background,
different experience, different depth of skill, and a slightly different work process—and that
introduces variation into a company’s workflow. The larger your operation, the more variation
works its way into the production line.
“Standardization,” explains K. Smith of KBC Advanced Technologies, “is the process of
developing, agreeing upon and implementing technical or program specifications, methods,
processes and practices throughout an organization.”
The goal of standardization is to do more with less resources, less time, and less effort.
You’ve probably already identified your best practices—the ones that preserve value while
eliminating waste. We’re going to show you how to capture those best practices, document
them, and roll them out across your workforce.
That sounds great. But how do I convince my boss to let me spend
time writing work instructions
Good question Here are a couple points that might help you make your case:Tech Writing Handbook
• Work instructions are key to reducing variation, allowing manufacturers to improve quality
and meet demand. Even better, written work instructions are a great training tool for new
• Standard work instructions enforce consistency when performing tasks. They allow engineers
to measure quality and task time. Knowing those two variables is key to determining deter
mining Takt time, which gauges how effectively manufacturers are meeting their production
If you can document the improvement with fewer errors or reduced Takt time, you won’t have
to ask your manager for resources next time—they’ll be happy to do it.
The better your work instructions are, the more efficient your workplace will be.
Writing standardized work instructions
Great work instructions use most of the same techniques that we’ve already explored in the
previous chapters. But there are a couple more things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Modularity means flexibility
Manufacturing is complex. Building a car, assembling a cell phone, and manufacturing a med
ical device are huge tasks. Each step along the way has to get done quickly, safely, and with Tech Writing Handbook
reproducible quality. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the process.
We already touched on the importance of prerequisites: reusable procedures that are used in
a number of different processes. This concept, of breaking work into repurposable chunks, is
important for managing work instructions.
Think of it this way: Processes have to be done in a certain order. You can’t put together a
hamburger without first cooking your beef. So, grilling your burger patty is a prerequisite—
a dependent task. Prepping veggies—slicing the tomatoes, washing the lettuce, cutting the
onions—is also a prerequisite. As is toasting the bun.
Organizing your procedural information into prerequisite tasks is a great way to create modular
Continuing with the burger theme, here’s an example: In busy restaurant kitchens, the work
process is separated into modules. No single person makes the burger from beginning to
end. Instead, there’s a grilling station for burgers; a toasting station for buns, and a prepa
ration station for vegetables. The modular layout allows the restaurant to respond to orders
quickly and easily.
The same principles keep shops running smoothly—whether you’re building power tools or
refurbishing plane parts. But what if Yvonne is running behind on the prep station You might
give some of her work (slicing tomatoes) to Stefan to do before he toasts the buns.
Modular work instructions enable line balancing
You can use your documentation system to level out your workload (and balance your line)
by moving processes from one station to another. Your team can react quickly by transferring
discrete processes to underutilized workstations, thereby eliminating bottlenecks.
Flexible, easy to rearrange work instructions provide a powerful tool for reducing overall takt
time.Tech Writing Handbook
Break it down
The best work instructions make complex processes feel simple—even when they really
aren’t. Break down each step in the process to its most basic elements. Here’s an example
from a repair procedure for an Xbox:
Step 8 of the guide describes how to remove the Xbox’s faceplate. Each bullet in the step
details individual actions that are part of that step.
We try to keep each step pretty short, because short feels simple. If there are five “do this”
bullets in a step, it’s probably better to split that step into two separate steps.
Being specic i fi s being safe
A clear, concise style is always important. But work instructions are a little different than
a product manual: you have a captive, careful audience. That means you can provide more
detail than you would for a publicfacing audience.Tech Writing Handbook
Work instructions don’t just standardize work, they also prevent accidents. Give your team
members all of the information they need to keep themselves safe.
Here’s a direction from a CNC machine operating procedure:
Remove the cutting tool.
Short, sweet, and to the point. Good enough, right Well, it might be a little too short. How
does the cutting tool come out of the machine Should the technician apply force Should he
twist Does it pull right out Cutting tools are sharp, so it’s a good idea to be specific. Here’s
Pull the cutting tool straight down to free it from the machine.
To remove any doubts about how to perform this step, include photos or videos. Illustrating
a movement with a couple handfeatured photographs, or a short video, eliminates confusion.
And that’s important when it comes to safety.
Find the right balance
Visual instructions are important—as we discuss at greater length in Chapters 6 and 7—but
as you’re crafting operational procedures, it’s important to find a balance between words and
images. The two should be complementary, but each should be descriptive enough to stand
on its own.
For each step, if you cover the text with your hand, the images should provide enough refer
ence for the technician to follow the task from beginning to end. If you cover the images with
your hand, the text should be good enough to stand alone as a set of instructions.
Feedback loops are imperative
With Dozuki, we allow workers to
Written instructions are never done: effective, continuous
comment on steps within a work
improvement means constantly integrating feedback from
instruction. They can suggest
the people on the floor actually doing the work.
improvements, ask for clarifica
Don’t wait for the quality team to flag the issue further down
tion, or identify errors as they
the line. Deal with problems before they become shop
find them. All stakeholders in
stoppers. Put a system in place to capture feedback.
the organization have a voice in
the process. And everyone who
Giving your workers tablets is a great way to bring them into
helps to improve the procedure
the loop. Then, you can empower workers to comment on
gains a sense of ownership over
and suggest improvements to the procedure.
the process.Tech Writing Handbook
Workers know which instructions are confusing. Deputize them as adjunct members of your
team. Once they know you’re listening, they’ll feel empowered to help you revise and improve
Implementing standardized processes can be a tough sell on the line, particularly when
people have been doing the same procedure for years. Let them know that you’re not
shoving a new procedure down their throat—you want to standardize the best procedure.
Giving them a part in the process and integrating their feedback into your documentation
is the best way to get everyone on board.You’re prepared.
Now go forth and write manuals
that make people awesome.
Visit www.dozuki.com to learn more.