Creating an effective technical manual takes more than using good grammar and proper spelling. Technical documents rely on clear, well-crafted instructions to help guide users through complicated, and sometimes dangerous, tasks. At the same time, you need to keep the end users’ experience in mind in order to make it easy for them to comprehend the instructions you’re giving them.
In addition to quality writing that’s easy to understand, here are other best practices that anyone who’s taking on the task of creating a technical manual should be familiar with.
Use the right tool
Word processors are commonly thought of as the go-to software whenever it comes to any type of writing needs. Technical manuals have so many requirements when it comes to document layout, however, that editing, collaboration and packaging tools like desktop publishing software orserve as a better choice.
Desktop publishing software usually provides a number of attractive features for creating technical documents, yet PDF software suites make it easier to incorporate collaborative practices as well as security and digital signatures if you need them.
Use images and diagrams
In order to provide the best instructions to the reader, your document should contain images that highlight the parts and components involved in each step. Clear, high-resolution images help the end user better understand what they need to do by creating visual cues and visual references. That said, if you’re making your technical manual available online, you’ll want to ensure that images don’t take up more space than necessary. That’s where good PDF software can come in handy—to reduce file size, making images better sized for the web, while ensuring images are visible to anyone who needs to reference them.
Give clear instructions
Good instructions start with step-by-step sequences that are in the correct order. Each set of instructions should build on the last series. When writing instructions in any situation where there’s more than one step, it’s best to use numbered lists so that each step is easily identified.
Make sure to write instructions in the present tense and use active voice. This not only makes for more professional content, it also helps bring end users into the process. Also make sure to use parallel construction for each step and start each direction with an imperative word such as Enter, Click or Select.
Keep it succinct
Whenever writing a list of steps that end users need to take, make sure that you break them into shorter tasks rather than creating a long list. Users find long lists of steps daunting and this can cause frustration when following directions.
Likewise, write shorter, more concise paragraphs. Avoid lengthy, wordy text as this makes it harder for the end user to follow and it makes finding the information they’re looking for more difficult.
Make it searchable
These days, it’s more than likely that you’ll provide your technical documentation in an electronic format. Creating the manual using a tool like PDF software such as Foxit PhantomPDF allows you to deliver a searchable document as a PDF file. This is helpful for a couple of reasons. It enables end users to come back to specific parts of the documentation using the search feature built into PDF readers. And, if you’re making your technical manual available online, it enables search engines to scan the PDF file and return relevant search results to anyone browsing online for technical information on your products or services. That’s a boon for your company’s customer service.
Lastly, it’s important not to forget the global audience when creating technical manuals. Avoid phrases and terminology that are unique to one country or culture so there’s no confusion when translating the file. Images and graphics should contain visual elements only and be free of text so that you don’t lose anything when the file is translated.
It’s also critical to understand that when translating a document, some languages can take up to 30 percent more space than English. PDF software such as PhantomPDF allows you to move and resize paragraphs, edit content and arrange objects in the right place so your instructions are clear no matter what language they are in.