Unclear instruction manuals or confusing user guides have become amusing tropes in our society. How many parents have looked cross-eyed at directions for constructing a doll house or a model car and wanted to wad them up and toss them across the room?
As a technical writer working freelance or for a company, you have been asked to create or edit user manuals for highly technical information. Clarity is paramount to your reader for understanding the important information they need to do their job the right way, the first time.
Visualize the Importance of Simplicity
Comics artist and writer Øystein Runde recommends simplicity as a key to clarity in good technical communication. He offers a great visual: “Imagine your user is a child, three floors under you, disarming a timed nuclear bomb. Explain exactly what the user has to do, in the minimum amount of time, to get the desired result.” He suggests:
- Use periods, not commas.
- Use checklists and numbers whenever possible.
- Nothing is too simple.
Decide on Your Documentation Layout
The layout of your document, as well as your choice of text style, will help your reader.
- Remain consistent through the document.
- Italicize or bold suggestions or helpful hints.
- Put important information, like warnings or critical pre-steps, before the step.
Be Ruthless with Your Words
If possible determine the expected length of the documentation. Write your first or second draft of your documentation, and then be ruthless with your red pen.
- Limit commas. Break up longer sentences into shorter ones. Ensure each sentence has a single purpose.
- Change passive voice to active voice, so readers are clear about instructions.
- Finally, rewrite the document so it uses half the amount of words as the previous draft.
For more ideas on how to add clarity to your technical writing, click here.