Effective Instructions

Have you ever tried to assemble something with poorly written or translated instructions? The classic image of a befuddled father on Christmas Eve surrounded by parts and tools did not become a “classic” without lots of help.

Having written assembly instructions for some rather complex machinery, I appreciate the difficulty of communicating clearly in my native language. The added complication of a translation is not something I would care to deal with. My hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin still had lots of non-English speakers while I was growing up, and we kids cruelly laughed at some of the “Milwaukeese” we heard from the old folks. Their direct translations from German led to phrases like “where the streetcar bends the corner round.”

Technical communication requires more precision than general conversation, of course, and often relies on repetition of a word or phase that sounds awkward when read aloud. If you need to remind the assembler to refer to the bolt torque chart at every operation, you cannot be concerned with losing a Pulitzer Prize.

E-mail and auto-complete are making a hash out of communication, in my humble opinion. As my old grade 7 English teacher used to remind, sloppy writing is a sign of a sloppy mind. A missing comma, for example, in the phase “Let’s eat, Grandma” could mean the difference between hospitality and cannibalism. I did not enjoy being nagged then but sure appreciate the lesson now. Not to mention great editors who check my submissions.

I was prompted to write this posting by a discussion over mass e-mail formatting. The sender was displeased with the lack of timely responses and was rather startled when one of the recipients pointed out the confusion caused by the order of the questions in the request. I had run into this earlier on a form I was filling out for a client’s accounting department. In that case, if you answered “No” — there was no clear path forward on the form.

My suggestion to all writers is to find a good editor to run things by, or to develop the ability to look at your own work objectively. Most of us need those editors to alert us to our errors. The next time you curse at assembly instructions, try to write your own version. It is tougher than it looks.

About Charles D. Schultz 555 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

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