Writing an instruction manual

Knowing what to look for and what not

    Writing an instruction manual is a serious business. More often than not, the first experience for a customer is not with the product itself, but with its instruction manual. In order to to make a customer journey as pleasant as possible, the instruction manual should be an integral part of any product experience. This implies that any company selling hardware or software, should plan the production of an instruction manual as early as possible. This is the best guarantee that the manual will be up to standard. What ‘up to standard’ means, should become clear in this article.

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    Writing an instruction manual does not sound that complicated. This is because there are some simple rules that makes the life of any technical writer easier. The rules especially have to do with the instruction part of the manual. That is to say: not necessarily the introductory part or the safety part, or any other part that offers general information rather than providing working instructions.

    Imperative sentences

    To start with, working instructions should always be written in an imperative sentence. “Fill the bottle” is way better than “You have to fill the bottle”. Not only is an imperative sentence as compact as it can be, it also leaves no room for confusion or questions. If one writes “You have to fill he bottle”, some readers could think: why? Or: what if I don’t? This destraction is not something people like. It is not efficient either.

    Separation between tasks

    Also, one should overload tasks. When a task consists of more than seven or eight instructions, it is better to split such a task into two separate tasks. This way, an user doesn’t feel lost and can scan each task better, including each instruction in that task.


    Speaking of scanning: in an instruction manual, one should create as many titles as possible. Each task should have its own title, like “Starting the machine”, “Filling up the oil reservoir”, “Replacing the cartridge” and so on.

    Each and every instruction in an instruction manual should be clearly separated from any other instruction, for example, by a line or a number or (preferably) both.

    A table consisting of five to eight instructions, each separated from each other, is ideal. In the first column the number (1., 2., 3. and so on) can find its rightful place. In the second, much broader, column one can place the instruction itself (“Open the bottle”, “Fill the bottle”, “Close the bottle” and so on).


    The question “How to write an instruction manual?”can easily be turned into “How to illustrate an instruction manual?” After all, a picture can say more than a 1,000 words. If that is the case, it would be foolish the use text instead of imagery. Illustrations work better than photographs, since illustrations can draw the attention to certain parts or actions (= instructions).

    Staying in touch with your audience

    Each product has its own ‘audience’. Someone who uses a photo camera for the first time, should be told where the button for taking a picture actually is. Someone who repairs bridges, does not need to be told which parts a specific bridge consists of. The tone of voice of any good instruction manual should be in line with the relevant target group.

    When one takes these rules into account, the quality of any instruction manual will improve greatly. Also, being familiar with the rules, will speed up the process of setting up a manual. This is also a very important factor. It would be great when an instruction manual is not only high-quality, but also cost effective.