Take it from me: writing manuals, guides and instructions is an art.

I’ve written, illustrated and/or designed a number of manuals, including the successful Park Tool School manual, a guide to the Automated Flight Following system for the BC Ministry of Forests, and many others. I’ve taught, as a university teachers’s assistant, in community education, and in secondary school. I’ve co-invented first-of-its-kind educational software and worked on several educational technology initiatives. And I’ve taught canoeing and rock climbing and worked as a ski instructor.

So here are some tips for writing useful instructional or support materials…

  •  Introduce and sum up your materials with what entrepreneurs call an “elevator pitch”. In sixty seconds or less make a pointed summary of your main point or points in a logical, memorable, concise way. If you can’t say it in a few paragraphs or a short time, then how is your audience going to remember it?
  • For consumers, aim for an 8th grade reading level. This is the average in North America. This means it has to be “short, sweet and simple”. Paragraphs should be around 3 or 4 sentences. Sentences should be around 8 or 10 words at most. And words should be short, too—no fancy, multi-syllabic stuff.
  • Repeat the important points three times. Your audience won’t absorb it without saying it several times. Repetition drives the point home and increases retention and three times is optimum. (See what I did there?)
  • Use illustrations instead of photos. Clear, black and white line drawings reproduce more clearly than photos. They also eliminate distracting details, thereby increasing comprehension and retention. Photos may seem less expensive or easier, but drawings convey the important information more clearly, concisely and memorably.
  • Typography and layout are important. It’s not so much a matter of making it look good, as it is optimizing reader understanding and memory retention. Help your learners by using a qualified and experienced graphic designer, or at least a professional template.
  • Create a “teacher edition” while you are making the student or consumer version. Any good layout will have some white space—use this with another digital layer of information to add notes for an instructor or tech support person. This can be printed at the same time, with a separate plate, or as a digital print.
  • Use a single folded sheet or a spiral binding so your work can lie flat in use. This is especially important for user manuals, where your reader may be performing a task while reading your materials.

A few simple points like these can make the difference between instructions or a manual that will help and support your user versus one that will frustrate and discourage. Often these materials are your users first contact with your support system. Leave them with a positive feeling about how you take their enthusiasm for your product or service seriously and with care, and the effort will be well repaid.