Writing instructions that work

Writing technical instructions is a… craft

    Writing instructions is a craft. Although one might prefer clear-cut illustrations instead of written instructions, this is not always possible. At first glance, writing technical instructions does not seem to be that difficult. But the writing rules in question are often forgotten. Technical writers should embrace these rules wholeheartedly.

    There are several aspects that must always be taken into account when writing a user manual. These aspects are universally applicable, regardless of how different the product, device, or software may be. And since a strong understanding and skill in these aspects significantly enhance the end result, it is wise for everyone involved in writing a manual to be aware of these aspects. They are listed below in an organised manner and further described.

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    What is a technical instruction?

    A technical instruction is a working instruction to use any product, whether this would be an industrial pick & place machine or a washing machine. Writing technical instructions comes down to following some simple rules.

    In technical writing, the way instructions are written immediately gives away whether professionals have been at work – or not. Technical writing instructions (yes, instructions to write down technical instructions) may be simple. However, they are not always brought into practice. This is something of an understatement, to be honest.

    Technical writing instructions

    Which are these technical writing instructions? Let us at least mention the main three:

    1. Use the imperative

    Always use an imperative sentence. Do not write “You can start the engine by pressing the Start button”. This is ‘just a sentence’ instead of a technical instruction. Write “Press the Start button”. This is short and precise. Because of that, it is not perceived as impolite.

    2. Split into different parts

    Does your instruction contain more than seven tasks (“1. Open the bottle, 2. Fill the cup, 3. Check if you are standing firmly, 4. Press the Start button” and so on)? Then split your instruction into two or more parts, in order not to get lost in a never ending number of tasks.

    Splitting a technical instruction leads to a number of specific instructions, each labeled with its own title (“Starting the engine”, “Controlling the speed” and so on). As a consequence, any reader can easily find the instruction he wants to carry out.

    3. Do not combine tasks

    If you would write “Open the bottle and fill the cup and after that, press the Start button”, it becomes much more difficult to repeat a certain task. That is why you should be explicit and write down each and every task separately:

    • Open the bottle.
    • Fill the cup.
    • Press the Start button.

    If you bring these three technical writing instructions into practice, your skills to set up a professional manual will improve drastically.

    If you would think writing instructions would not be your cup of tea, you can always contact professional companies that are specialized in technical writing. They can help you out.