How Writing 200 Install Sheets Improved My Editing

IdeaMany years back, I worked in the marketing department of a lighting manufacturer that asked us to create installation instructions for each of their 200-and-some products. It was challenging to translate from engineer-speak into English and to get all parties on the company-wide team to agree on the simplest of concepts, but we did it.

In the process, which took many drafts, many months, and many cups of coffee, I sharpened my editing skills. Here’s what I learned:

Be Clear. There is not much worse than being atop a ladder with half a light fixture in one hand, a screwdriver in the other, and installation instructions that read like they’ve been translated into Norwegian, and then into Mandarin Chinese, and then back into English. If it’s impossible to install this fixture any other way than to assemble the whole shebang on the ground and attach it to the ceiling with the help of three other guys and some duct tape, say so. Or you may never get a second order from this customer, because you’ve made him squander valuable union contractor time and money taking the #$@$% thing out of the ceiling and reassembling it.

 Be Concise. Contractors don’t have time to parse out flabby language. Say you write, “In order to properly install the battery pack onto the frame, make sure you have selected the correct screwdriver, which should be a #5 flat head screwdriver.” Not only is this an eyeful to read, it’s insulting. Of course a competent contractor would install something properly. So this sentence becomes, “Attach the battery pack to the frame using a #5 flat head screwdriver.” Done.

Be Accurate. Check all your facts before the boxes leave the warehouse. When a customer has a hundred fixtures on site is not a good time to discover you’ve neglected to include (let alone write) programming instructions for the whiz-bang remote that controls the dimming on all of them. Or that you’ve told them to use the wrong screwdriver to install the wrong widget. Know your widgets, people!

Be Compact. Anyone who writes has probably been told showing is better than telling. It’s the same for installation instructions. If Steps 4, 5 and 6 require a clear diagram, you’ll have less room for text. Carve those unnecessary words from the text, and you can make the visuals even bigger.

Know Your Audience. An install sheet for a licensed electrical contractor reads very differently than one designed for a residential customer. Just as you’d never assume the average homeowner knows how to install something “according to local code,” don’t tell the contractor to screw in the “light bulbs.” These, in non-residential land, are called “lamps.” Bulbs, they say, grow in the ground. You will be laughed at and made to buy the coffee and donuts.

Consider Industry Standards. Construction codes and legal liability dictated that we include certain things on our install sheets, like a UL logo and this line: “Read all instructions before installation.” (Even though probably 75% of contractors use installation instructions as nothing more than a placemat for the coffee and donuts you bought them.) Similarly, consider your publisher’s standards or website requirements before you submit. Or else you could end up doing the literary equivalent of disassembling a hundred-pound light fixture on the floor and possibly losing a few widgets down the heating vents.

Have you picked up tips in any unexpected places for the work you do?

(Note: This post appeared on a different blog in a slightly different form in December, 2010.)

10 thoughts on “How Writing 200 Install Sheets Improved My Editing

  1. acflory says:

    Oh I loved this post! I had to do the same thing, but for computer software, sometimes as the programmers were in the final stage of tweaking. What’s important to /them/ is light years away from what a garden variety user wants, or needs. Sadly most user guides are still written for the type of user who never reads the instructions anyway.

      • acflory says:

        Oh some people do read them! I’ve been amazed at how many people have visited my blog just to look at a simple how-to. I guess the operative word is ‘simple’. I’ll bet you pitched your install sheets to those who actually needed them.

  2. Yvonne Hertzberger says:

    Good one, Laurie. I especially liked the bit about ‘know your audience’. It always drives me crazy when install sheets are written by those for whom English is a second language. They should not be written so that we have to hear it in their minds before we try to decipher what they are trying to say.

    • laurieboris says:

      Thank you, Yvonne! Some day I have to dig up the completely useless instructions that were packed with our entertainment center. We ended up chucking them completely and going by what it “should” look like. It still works, although we had a few pieces left over. 😉

  3. laurie27wsmith says:

    It cuts right across the board Laurie, the simplicity of instructions are no different to any other communication. The old Keep It Simple Stupid applies for most things, *unless it’s rocket science.*

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