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Tech Writing Handbook

Tech Writing Handbook 39
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Published Date:04-07-2017
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Tech Writing Handbook Authors Kyle Wiens, CEO, iFixit Julia Blu, ff Lead Writer, iFixitChapter 0 Tech Writing Welcome ...................................................................3 Handbook Chapter 1 Look before you write .........................................5 This handbook will teach you Chapter 2 how to create everything from Being concise ..........................................................7 manuals to work instructions. We’ll help you avoid the most Chapter 3 common pitfalls of tech writing, Crystal clarity ..........................................................10 from poor planning to outdated Chapter 4 publishing. Communicating with style ...............................13 Authors Chapter 5 Kyle Wiens, CEO, iFixit Audience ....................................................................17 Julia Blu, ff Lead Writer, iFixit Chapter 6 Photographing the process .............................19 Chapter 7 Using other visuals ...............................................25 Chapter 8 Organizing your content....................................30 Chapter 9 Legal requirements ..............................................34 Chapter 10 Publishing .................................................................36 Chapter 11 After you write ........................................................40 Appendix A: Deep dive Brought to you by Manufacturing work instructions .................42Tech Writing Handbook 3 CHAPTER 0 Welcome So, you’ve decided to write a manual. We extend our hand in hearty congratulations of the do-it-yourself 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 4 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 how-to 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 5 CHAPTER 1 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 well-designed. 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 6 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 7 CHAPTER 2 Being concise 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 text-dense 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 better?Tech Writing Handbook 8 How to make paragraphs more concise • Lead with the most important information: Front-load 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 off-topic 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 sentence lengths. 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 long-winded 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 9 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 10 CHAPTER 3 Crystal clarity Imagine your words are a sliding glass door. Now imagine smashing into the glass door—hard. That’s how clear your writing should be: dangerously clear. 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 Turbo-Encabulator. Did you get that? Yeah, we didn’t either. The Turbo-Encabulator is completely made up. But, when a description of the Turbo-Encabu- 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- bo-Encabulator 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 zoom-in/zoom-out is referenced. Tech Writing Handbook 11 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 syllables.” 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: Extra-Lift Carriage Control Lever Brings small items close to the top of the toaster, for easy removal. An Extra-Lift Carriage Control Lever? For easy toast remov- al, you say? Good for you… but the rest of us just call that a “lever.” 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 12 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 deep-seated 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 built-in 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 13 CHAPTER 4 Communicating with style Manuals aren’t pulp fiction page turners. But that doesn’t mean they have to be a snooze-fest. 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 doing so. to a formal, business-like 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 expert-level knowledge.Tech Writing Handbook 14 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. Anecdotes: The dual-purpose mute/alt 3-4 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 3-4 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 15 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 remember it. 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 extraordinaire. • 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 second-person 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 16 Short paragraphs are key: The rule of a well-formed, five-sentence 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 writer. There’s enough nuance to internationalization to fill a book, so check out The Content Wrangler for more tips. Writing Handbook 17 CHAPTER 5 Audience 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 18 Flesch-Kincaid Readability Tests are the most common way to ascertain a text’s readability. Flesch-Kincaid scores ease of The average American adult reading on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the easiest to read. reads at about a ninth-grade Another Flesch-Kincaid test estimates reading level (K-12). level. 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 Flesch-Kincaid 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. Existing knowledge 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 19 CHAPTER 6 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 high-resolution 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 Zero-Inser- 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 20 Here are iFixit’s text instructions for freeing the ZIF battery connector in an iPod Nano: Hold down the light-colored 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 high-resolution, 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 self-repair 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.