“How to Write Great Instructions”

Instructions-kindle-coverClick HERE to buy

Only $4.51 (approx £3 – €4)

Now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle!




Warning! Read this book before writing your manual.

Judging by the number of hits on my short guide to writing instructions on my website, there is clearly a need out there for a more comprehensive guide on the subject. Well, here it is. Many of my students of English have asked me how best to write instructions, or have asked me to check through some that they have written in, or translated into, English. So, I am going to spread the message, so to speak, to a much wider audience and help you to write the kind of instructions that are a pleasure to use; the kind of instructions that make customers glad that they bought your product, and not someone else’s.

 The quality of your instructions is just as important as the quality of your product, your advertising, your website, your packaging and your customer service. Bad quality in any of these areas will lead to unhappy customers and lost sales.

This eBook is not intended as a comprehensive guide to technical writing, as this is a much wider field. It is intended to make it easy for a you to put together understandable sets of instructions for practically any device or process. Now, an important thing to remember is that not everyone who reads your manual will be a native speaker of English. Maybe they are not living in their home country, and maybe the device they bought from you was not shipped with instructions in their own language. English is almost certainly the most-used second language in the world. Go to any seaport, airport or international tourist destination in the world and you will hear people ‘getting by’ in English.

Fifty-five percent of Internet content is in English. No other language comes even close – Russian is next, at 6%, and Chinese at 4%. Quite clearly, 55% of the world’s population do not speak English as their mother tongue. In fact, only 335 million people speak English as their first language (less than 5% of the world population), which is beaten by Spanish speakers at 406 million, and totally blown out by Mandarin at 848 million.

With this in mind, I have tried to keep the vocabulary and grammar in this book as simple as possible, so that the user can focus on the message. This is, of course, exactly what a set of instructions should be aiming to do also – to let the end-user simply follow them, not decode or translate them. I have also not assumed that English is your native language, so I am going to avoid over-technical and uncommon words, idioms and slang. I absolutely advise you to do the same.

Particularly these days, as devices become more and more complicated, with more and more functions, the need for clear, well-written instructions is essential. Think of all the devices you have at home, your phone, computer, TV and DVD player, coffee maker, lawn mower – the list is endless. All these devices came with instruction manuals written by someone. So I’ll ask you, did you switch on the device first, or read the manual first? Did you read the manual at all? If you read, or at least referred to the manual, was it easy to understand or not?

The instruction manual for my earlier mobile phone was two hundred pdf pages long. Did I read them all? Of course not, but I was able to find nearly all the information I needed. It was easy to refer to, and this is an important point. An instruction manual is not a book, to be read from cover to cover. It needs to be split into logical sections which deal with the device’s various features.

My current phone is fairly simple (I get all the cast-offs in our house, as my wife and kids upgrade to ‘smart phones’ with ‘apps’ and a staggering range of features), but even so, I don’t use all the features it has to offer. Of course, I haven’t read the manual, and I don’t even know where it is. I press and try and usually get there in the end. However, if I did need to find the manual (probably on the Internet) then I wouldn’t want to read the whole thing. I would want to be able to quickly find the section I was looking for and find clear, simple instructions.

Writing instructions in English is actually quite an easy task. The key is simplicity and organisation. However, we have all come across examples of instructions (usually for the VCR) which have absolutely failed to be simple or organised, at least from the users’ point of view. So what has gone wrong?

Step 1 – Well, the instructions were probably put together by the designers of the device. The designers, of course, are so familiar with its functions, and with the jargon of their profession, that the basic steps and explanations don’t even cross their minds. It’s obvious! That’s mistake number one – it isn’t obvious to everyone. There is another thing here. Most engineers are ‘numbers people’, they deal with scientific and physical facts. Numbers people are not usually so good with words, because words can be imprecise and vague. As a writer I have to agree with them too – it is a great challenge to write text which is clear to all. I’m trying to do it here, and I hope I’m succeeding.

Step 2 – These instructions have then been ‘improved’ and made presentable by a language expert (who is not so familiar with the device, nor the terminology). This language expert should have had the opportunity to meet with the designers and go through the instructions point by point, to clear up any possible misunderstandings. However, as I am a language expert myself, and have been paid to write up instructions written by engineers, they don’t usually have the time to walk me through the functions of the device. They already have their minds on the next project, because the instructions were the last consideration.

Step 3 – Finally – these ‘improved’ instructions may then have been translated into tens of different languages, on a tight deadline and an even tighter budget, probably by translators who have never even seen the device, and may not even have a picture of it. Did you know that TV subtitles are often done by translators who are not able to view the actual programme or film footage? This certainly explains the poor standard of some subtitles. And then of course, some instructions have clearly been translated using automated software, and are worth sharing on the Internet – for a laugh! There is no software on the planet that can make a faultless translation of anything longer than a short sentence, there are just too many variables that require a human to decide on. Having said that, I do use Google Translate from time to time myself. It does help you get the idea of a text in a language you don’t know, and can form the basis of a proper translation. However, to rely on automated programmes to translate into a language you don’t know yourself would be very risky – you have no idea what words have been chosen.

Anyway, the end result of these three steps can be, even with good pictures to help you along, confusing. I repeat, good instructions are just as important to a company’s image and reputation as great marketing material and packaging, and a friendly voice at the end of the helpline. Instructions should never be put together as an afterthought. If anything, the manual should be developed along with the product.

If you are a designer or a technical writer, you are in a position to make great improvements, and possibly history!

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Presentation Tips 1 | Malcolm's English Pages
    Jun 26, 2014 @ 14:42:13

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