How to write a self-help manual: Dos and Don't's

Apr 24, 2017

Once in a while we enjoy allowing guest bloggers to contribute to our blog entries.  This week we are providing an entry from Robin Singh, an author from an educational researcher at Please enjoy Robin’s entry regarding mistakes which could be made by those writing a self-help manual.
Technical writing can be complicated in the beginning, but if you do your research and take an extensive approach, writing a good help manual can become an easily accomplished task for any dedicated author out there.
A well-written help manual has many benefits. It can drastically save either an engineer’s or salesman’s time. It can become a powerful ticket deflector, lessening the pressure on your support team. And a detailed and perfected help manual can limit legal liability related to misuse of a product. As it is a complicated task for first-timers, it is not unusual to make some mistakes. Those mistakes can prove costly for your business. This is why getting to know them and how to overcome them is very important step to undergo before sitting down and writing your first one.

Forgetting to Write Table of Contents

If you want to create a user guide that is easily browse-able and where all users can find what interests them in no time, this mistake is something you want to avoid at all cost. A thorough table of contents should have all the chapters of your user manual. This can help a user access the information he/she needs effectively. Some of the help manual authors write the table of contents in advance, as a kind of map that will help them cover all aspects of a product or service your business offers to customers. Having all the topics right in front of you is a great precaution measure that will ensure things don’t get left out.

Having Poor or no Structure at All

A user manual is a technical document and as such it is required to have a certain order, which is slightly different from other types of writing. A good user manual not only has to contain valuable information, but it also has to have that information arranged in an efficient manner – it needs proper structure. A common mistake for first-time help manual writers is to completely go without one or to have incoherent structure. This one is closely related with previous mistake. If you manage to perform these two tasks without flaws you are halfway to creating a useful help manual.
Simple structure is something that will render your manual worthwhile and not boring. This can be achieved by using simple sentences that contain only one piece of information. Make groups of information by putting correlating ones together. Each of those can be a Topic in your Table of Contents. Make sure to put topics that contain the most important information first and ones that contain info only a few users will need at the end.

Labeling Some of the Information Irrelevant

If you want to write a help manual that covers almost all circumstances, there is no information that can be ignored. The worst mistake you can make is to make assumptions of what your customers must or already know. You have to move away from the mindset where you write only for one type of customer. Be aware that your help manual is intended for everyone because there is no some established common level of knowledge of your customers. The best way to avoid this mistake is to write instructions for all procedures relevant to your products or services, no matter how silly they might sound to you. In the end, users should rely on the information you provide them, not the other way around.

Choosing to Write in Passive Voice

The keyword you should work around when you are writing your help manual is instructions. Manuals are instructional documents, so you want to be able to send short and clear information to your users. The user manuals written in active tone allow users to easier understand the information they contain. It’s all about making it easier for your customer to take action, and passive voice is certainly something that won’t help you in doing so.

Not Creating Online User Manuals

We live in an internet era. You can feel free to say, if it is not online it does not exist, and you won’t be too wrong. Making your user manuals available online will help your business operation in many ways. For starters you will feel that blessing of ticket deflection, followed by effective customer retention and bigger revenue. Online user manuals will work for you around the clock, requiring no wage at all, providing your customers with step-by-step instructions. Also, online user manuals are very neat solution, since they can be accessed via mobile devices wherever the customers are.

Forgetting to Update the Help Documents

This is a common mistake for beginners in this line of work. It’s all about being aware that outdated help manuals are so much worse than useless. If a product or service changes make sure to update user manual as soon as possible. Imagine the frustration of customer reading about how to connect some cable which no longer exists in the new version of product. When you start updating your documents you will appreciate all the time you have devoted in constructing a Table of Contents and working on the document’s structure.

Providing Poor Content Value

Keep in mind that you want to write a user guide. If you go with too much information, you risk creating a vague help manual. You can always enrich and bring more value to your manual’s content by using terminologies the product users are familiar with or by inserting diagrams and pictures. Write simple answers and solutions and try to avoid complicated guides. The best practice is to start the guide with a short list of all the features your product has and then slowly present the information through a step-by-step guide.
As you can see, these mistakes are not that hard to overcome or even prevent. Keep in mind that regular re checking of your user manuals can prove to be a rock-solid method in discovering mistakes and oversights. The end goal would be to improve the experience of your product users. Avoiding frustration in your users will help your company build long-term relations with your customer base and attract even more customers through positive comments and opinions of your current ones.
Guest Blogger is Robin Singh. Robin is a Technical Support Executive with ProProfs. He is an expert in knowledge management and various Knowledge base tools.


Show Buttons
Hide Buttons