18 Tips for Writing a Manual for Work

by Holly Lipschultz

18 Tips for Writing a Manual for Work

I’m one of those Hermione-types of people who read manuals. If I need to learn something, my first order of business is to read the manual. Give me a job manual, and I’ll read by tomorrow morning. And if there is no manual or no instructions—I will write one.

So, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that I found myself in the situation of creating a full-on Circulation manual for our student workers. We had a lot of old documentation that needed updating, scattered around our staff web. We also had a lot of useful information scattered around both the staff web, the library’s official website, and my work computer left by my predecessors. And a great deal of things were not written down anywhere. Institutional memory can be very powerful…and overwhelming to a new person.

I received advice from my bosses, asked for tips and assistance from friends, and taught myself so many of the functions of Word that I didn’t even know existed. Here are some things I learned about creating workplace documentation, and I hope it helps you.

1)   Start by listing everything that the person in the job needs to know. It will take a few days to compile the list. Ask coworkers, bosses, and subordinates. Continue adding to this list even after you start writing.

2)   If there is a training outline, use that as a starting point.  If there is no training outline, write one. This will become the outline for the manual.

3)   Organize it in a logical, training sort of way. Start with the basics and work your way to the more complicated stuff. This varies from library to library. At mine, it made sense to start with an overview of privacy policies before talking about circulating materials. I’m ending with our access policies and alarm systems.

4)   Separate it into chapters and subsections like “Check Out” and then “Looking up patrons,” “Dealing with blocks and notices” and “Paying fines.”

5)   Use Word’s Table of Contents tool. This will save you a LOT of time. Include all of the heading levels you are using. I use 5 levels of headings. Some sections need more subheading levels than others.

6)   Learn how to format the ToC to make it easier to read. I like to use bigger fonts for the main chapters, and use subsequently smaller fonts for each subsection (no smaller than 10pt). The directions are in the above link.

7)   If it is a rather large manual, it is useful to have a partial ToC for each chapter for faster look-up.

8) Use Word headings for the titles of each section. You can edit the formatting of the headings to fit your library’s standards.

9) Learn how to use page and section breaks. You can break pages so that each section starts on an odd numbered page, making it easier to find each section.

10) Give the title and the partial ToC of each section its own full page for a cleaner look, starting the actual content on the following page.

11) Be thorough with the directions. Don’t assume the person knows something that seems simple to you. For example, not everyone knows how to mark books as “lost,” or which drop down menu that option lives in.

12) On the flip side, don’t include the simplest of tasks. Otherwise it will bog down and bury the actual useful stuff.  For example- hold book in your hands does not need to be said.

13) Include screen shots of processes, actually going through examples yourself if at all possible. Seeing pictures can help make it easier to understand the directions. (Don’t forget to edit out any identifying details of patrons if applicable. I frequently used my own account as an example.)

14) But don’t use too many pictures. That’s about as helpful as no pictures at all.

15) Have coworkers and bosses read through, edit, and add suggestions to your manual. Comments are your friend. Regular in-person meetings help, too.

16) I do not recommend including passwords. Keep that in a separate place.

17) Make a project timeline, like a Gantt chart.  I made one using Excel, and I can’t tell you how much that helps to keep me motivated. Mine looked a lot like this.

18) Give yourself plenty of time when estimating how much time it will take to finish each section. It’s better to finish a section early than it is to ask for extensions. Account for vacations, sick time, work emergencies, finals and midterms, and so on.

Writing a manual pretty much from scratch can feel overwhelming, but I hope this list helps you feel more empowered!

Holly Lipschultz lives in Chicago with her husband and three cats, and currently works at an academic library. She writes about disabilities services and other library-related things on her blog.