How to Write a Manual


There are many reasons why you may need to write a manual. Maybe you:

  • Have to fulfill a regulatory requirement
  • Want to establish prestige
  • Need to help your employees do a better job
  • Are concerned about covering  your behind

To learn more about why companies write manuals, see “Why Write a Manual”.

Getting started

No matter which company you work for, or which subject matter you are dealing with, the process for putting together a good manual is fairly similar each time:

  1. Involve writers early
    According to a December 2006 study by the Aberdeen Group, project documentation is successful 92% of the time when writers are involved at the beginning of the project (email us to get a copy of the summary).. Involving the writers early gives them a chance to guide key decisions that will impact the documentation. It will also help them understand your purpose in completing the project.
  2. Analyze the audience and purpose
    This may be the most important stage. Without this stage, you risk completely missing the boat with the manual. As Stephen R. Covey says, you have to first lean your ladder against the right wall. Then you can climb up the ladder. Too many groups skip straight to stage 4 or 5. Bad idea.
  3. Prioritize resources and content
    It might be nice to write up every applicable procedure and policy. But we’ve got deadlines to meet, and limited manpower. Which subject matter experts will be providing the content? And how much time will they have to do it? Which content is really critical, and which is nice-to-have?I once observed a small doctor’s office for a day. I saw that one of the nurses was the heart of the office. If she left suddenly, the office might be paralyzed. So why not document her key functions, so that others can carry on if she doesn’t show up one day? That’s the kind of content you want in your manual.
  4. Plan the content-gathering, writing, review, and editing
    Give everyone a clear idea of what needs to be done. How many pages will the manual likely contain? How many sections? How much will you have to get done per week to meet your deadline?
  5. Do the work
    In many cases, this is the only stage of the process that companies pay attention to. But there’s a reason that it’s stage 4 of 8.
  6. Test it
    For most manuals, the process skips this stage. But if you want to have a manual that really works, you need to test it – early. Sit down with some of your employees. See if they can find key information in the manual. See if they can follow the procedures, or at least understand them, if they aren’t your end users.
  7. Publish it
    Perhaps your manual will be a big, searchable PDF. Or maybe the users would be better served by an online manual in the form of a website. Either way, gear the publishing method around how your users will actually use the information. Of course, you need to start thinking about publishing issues way before stage 6.
  8. Measure the results
    Do you want to know if the money you spent on the manual was worth it? Then you need to measure the manual’s effectiveness in some way.The best feedback comes from the end users of the manual, whether those are your employees, or people outside of your company. You need to install a mechanism for gathering feedback on the manual.
  9. Revise as needed
    Manuals are never completely done. You will always need to add something to the manual from time to time, or correct obsolete information. The first version of a manual is almost never the best one.The key is for someone at your company to have the manual as part of their responsibilities. They need to be accountable for keeping it up to date.

I hope these guidelines help you write some useful, correct, complete manuals!

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