Is an instruction guide different from a manual?

The essence of instruction guides

Is an instruction guide different from a manual? The short answer is: no. The long answer is: more or less. This article explains why an instruction guide somehow has its own character. In principle, the differences are really minor though.

An instruction guide shares the word ‘guide’ with the term ‘quick start guide’. This is telling. An instruction guide does not count that many pages. Its compactness could be compared to a quick start guide, which main focus is on the working instructions itself. This focus on the instructions itself is also prevalent in an instruction guide. This has to with the relative simplicity of the products for which one writes an instruction guide. These products do not involve much maintenance or safety issues. Take a calculator or a flashlight.

This being said, there are a lot similarities between an instruction guide and a manual. These similarities mainly have to do with the phrasing of the instructions. Instructions should be phrased in the same way as in any manual, even the rather complicated ones like maintenance manuals.

What does ‘phrasing the same way’ mean here? It means a couple of things.

1. Using imperative sentences

Instructions should be as compact as possible. This means using imperative sentences: “Put on the light” instead of “Now, you can put on the light”. Imperative sentences are not only compact, there are also unambiguous. If a user would read “Now, you can put on the light”, he might ask himself whether putting on the light is really necessary. A technical writer should not leave his wording open for interpretation. He should be as precise and as compact as possible.

2. Dividing different tasks

Replacing a battery is something different from switching off and on a flashlight. Cleaning a flashlight is something different altogether. In order for the user to scan each task properly, one should separate these tasks from each other as much as possible (“Replacing the battery”, “Switching the flashlight on or off” and so on).

3. Incorporating pictures

If anything, pictures are even more important in an instruction guide than in a manual – although there are absolutely useful in both instances. A picture can convey information in an instant, which is particularly important in a compact manual as an instruction guide in effect is. If a picture can tell you more than even a 100 words (instead of 1,000), one should prefer imagery instead of text.

All in all, instruction guides are not that different from manuals. Especially not if one knows how to phrase the instructions themselves.