Posted October 22, 2019
Technical subject matter can easily confuse readers, and complex documents like user manuals can just as readily overwhelm the writer(s). Further, as a highly specialized type of document, user manuals require the precise application of specific skills. Fortunately, with the right approach, writers can conquer these projects with aplomb.
Focus on clarityEspecially if the user manuals are aimed at novices or general population readers, a lack of clarity can leave readers unable to follow the instructions and/or solve their problem. In extreme cases, it might lead them to worsen the problem! Clarity is critical in an effective manual. Learn more about achieving clarity in technical writing.
Know your audienceClarity in writing is not just a matter of wording. It also requires a strategic understanding of the reader. Writing to an expert in the subject matter, who may already know related vocabulary, will look very different than writing to a novice, for example. It also helps to know how they will use the manual. Will they be going through page by page, or using it as an occasional reference? Learn more about understanding the audience.
Apply critical thinkingUnderstanding the work and its audience requires the application of critical thinking and planning. This means going deeper than the usual “specs” of a manual (its length, what subjects to cover, etc.) and figuring out how to connect the dots between the writing, the reader, and desired outcomes. Learn more about how critical thinking in writing works.
Incorporate visuals.Particularly for documents that are instructional or directive, visual illustrations – tables, charts, flow diagrams, graphics, and/or photos – can help communicate complex ideas easily and quickly. Visuals can even help to shore up unclear writing; the words may confuse the reader, with the illustration providing clarity. Imagery also makes otherwise text-heavy documents easier to navigate and read. Learn more about when and how to use visuals.
Use modular writingConsider turning each key idea into self-contained chunks and sub-chunks. These smaller “modules” of writing can ease the writing process, facilitate reader comprehension, make it easy to update the manual down the road and create “repurposable” bits of text that can be used elsewhere. It’s a great way to simplify both the writing process and the user manual itself for easier production and consumption.
Use appropriate tools.There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when constructing a manual. Microsoft Word is not necessarily the ideal platform for truly complex documents, particularly those that contain internal references or may require interactivity with the reader. Specialized manual creation software can facilitate the process of creating organized, well-structured, and even interactive manuals.
Keep it concise.Less is more when it comes to user manuals. Too much information can confuse and overwhelm, particularly when the subject matter is technical. Science magazine writes, “Do you know what you’d call a magazine article that required intellectual scrutiny and uninterrupted neural commitment to figure out what it’s even trying to say? You’d call it a badly written article.” Learn more about avoiding overwriting and keeping documents short.
Beta test the documentBeta test the user manual like it’s a product: stress-test it for flaws and weaknesses (“bugs”). If nothing else, make sure people representative of the intended user audience has a chance to read, put it into action, and provide feedback. Learn more about writing like you're engineering a product and treating the writing process as an engineering problem.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.