Saturday, February 16, 2013

How to write a manual for an automobile:

Every good writer tries to avoid overusing phrases. A phrase that appears again and again, in any writing, is there for effect, or else it is there to annoy.

I have been reading the manual for a modern Ford, and in its 500(!) pages , there is one phrase that appears much, much too often. That prase is: if equipped.

This is a one-manual-fits-all book. There seem to be dozens of optional features. There are options within options. It is clearly hell to try to concentrate on what one has actually got while reading the manual. The worst case, I think, is the keys. There are manual keys, keys that can do a few remote commands, and smart key that don’t need to be plugged in. They behave differently in many ways, requiring more than a dozen “if equipped” alternatives.

For goodness sakes, you car manufacturers! This is the 21st Century! Have you ever heard of “print on demand?” The dealer should print the manual for a specific car after it is equipped and when it is being sold. The car’s computer knows most of the options, so the dealer can copy the options to a USB key. The dealer can feed this info, plus some external option selections, into the printing program. And the buyer will get a book that applies to This Car Only.

Will it be a pleasure to read? Well, not quite. One more writing change is needed. This Ford manual, which I believe is typical, interleaves instructions with all the necessary dumb warnings. The sensor will not work if it is blocked. The HD radio station might disappear if the signal is weak. The rear camera is no substitute for paying attention and looking in the mirror. (This truly important advice appears over and over in the manual.)

Write these warnings all in one place! Then the buyer will have a manual that is a pleasure to understand.

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