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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from poor planning to outdated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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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:
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
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 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
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
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
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 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
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 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
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
There’s enough nuance to internationalization to fill a book, so check out The Content Wrangler
for more tips.
http://thecontentwrangler.com/2011/07/08/10-tips-for-writing-international-technical-content/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
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).
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.
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 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
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.