I’ve been writing manuals for all sorts of things for many (many) years. I have found that over the years I have become more comfortable writing manuals and I have honed my writing skills for the audience. I have written operations manuals, instruction manuals, training manual, national contracts, and even Franchise Disclosure Documents (which is probably my least favorite). After writing manuals for so long, I have developed my own list of tips on how to write a manual.
- Create a list – write down as many topics that you should / want to include in your manual. They don’t have to be in any particular order yet. Just getting the topics down can help with the thinking process. If you happen to think of something on a specific topic at random, you can open up your document and jot down your ideas for expansion later.
- Always keep a pen and paper handy – you will have random thoughts and ideas come to you when working on other tasks in your everyday job. If you write them down right then and there you can include them in your manual later.
- Consult with other people in your company – in most cases you won’t know everything there is to know on a specific topic or procedure. Instead of struggling to make something up that sounds good, talk to the expert on that subject… and take really good notes for later translation into the manual.
- Don’t re-do work that’s already been done – if you are including sections in your manual that pieces have already been written about that topic, find those documents or pieces and start there. For example, I like to include an introduction about the company (i.e. who the company is, their mission and values, etc.). Most companies include this information on their company website. You may have to re-word some things, add to, or even take some things out of existing material, but this is much easier than having to start from scratch.
- Get everything written and then format the document – there’s no sense in formatting and putting everything in the correct order until everything is written. If you start formatting before the writing is done you will likely find that you’re spending more time formatting than actually writing.
- Write in the third person and don’t use specific names – using I, you, we, etc. in manuals can become quite confusing (and really looks unprofessional). Sticking to using the company name and employee titles is also just safer. If you include employee names you may find yourself updating the manual every time someone leaves or joins the company. This is not only time consuming, but unnecessary. Using titles just simplifies your life and makes the document much easier to manage (especially if it’s in the hundreds of pages like mine tend to be).
- Always have someone else proofread the document – either all at once or in sections. You wrote the document, so when you attempt to proofread it you will likely miss at least a few errors. Having someone else do the proofreading for you will allow for a fresh set of eyes to examine the document and find things you may have missed.
- Find a co-writer – if you can. If this is your ‘baby’ then you’ll be writing alone, but if you can find a co-writer and split up the topics it will likely be completed in half the time. A word of warning, though, you both may have very different writing styles, so the document may not flow very well. Finding someone with a similar writing style, or finding someone who can edit to sound like it’s written by the same person, can help with the flow of the document.