In STEM? Make Sure You Learn to Write Instruction Manuals

Filed in Student Experience by on August 26, 2019

You might not think that your career will have you writing many instruction manuals, but you’re wrong: it’s actually one of the most important skills in STEM — whether you’re a professional writer or not.

Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about instruction manuals or the people who wrote them. Little pamphlets or books come with virtually everything we purchase, but they’re usually set aside forever, barring some great emergency. Instruction manuals are almost universally considered boring, and most people will probably pull a face at the thought of writing one.

Well, those of us going into a STEM career will find ourselves reading a lot of manuals, and probably writing many of them as well. And being able to write good instructions can be the thing that sets you apart from other interns, or that secures you that promotion. It can even be the reason you get hired. At first glance, the idea of written instructions may seem boring, but they’re actually crucial to the functioning of any company.

In my first writing class at WPI during my freshman year, Professor Lewis sat us down and told us that we would have to write an instruction manual on the spot on a specific topic: how to put on a shoe.

At first, it seemed like a comical prompt. Weren’t we there to learn how to write essays? White papers? Dissertations? Explaining how to put on a shoe isn’t exactly hard.

Except, it is. As soon as we put more thought into it, we realized that explaining how to put on a shoe to a person who had never owned a shoe, perhaps never even seen one, is incredibly hard. How would they know which shoe goes on each foot? What tips could we give for adjusting the tongue and the back of the shoe so that the foot fits? Will they even be able to identify the “front” and “back” of a shoe? And we hadn’t even gotten to tying the shoelaces!

Learning to explain a process in a way that makes it perfectly replicable for someone who hasn’t done it, or seen anyone do it, is a much more complex job than one would think. And it’s crucial in any industry. Any new things you discover or implement at a job are worthless if they can’t be recorded for the future. 

If you work in a manufacturing plant, or in research and development, even the slightest change has to be recorded, at a risk of major setbacks due to modifications to an established procedure. Problems could spring up quickly if an operator or engineering forgets to write down an important step. Even seemingly minor procedures, like keeping a record of transactions or the minutes of a company-wide meeting, can cause drastic problems if the writer doesn’t know how to express themselves in a way that gives context, explains the reasoning behind certain steps, and properly names or labels important pieces of information. 

Replicable data is key whenever more than one person is involved, and the success of a procedure can’t rest entirely on one knowledgeable person’s shoulders. And unfortunately, most companies won’t have a person hired solely as a professional writer: they’ll just have employees across all positions put their progress into writing.

According to a few experienced engineers I’ve spoken to, deciphering the rambling, typo-ridden written records of people unaccustomed to write anything — much less easily-understandable, replicable process manuals — can be an absolute nightmare. That’s where you, the experienced engineering professional with the ability to write clearly, come in.

To write good instructions, you have to know how to be matter-of-fact and detached from your subjective experience. You need to be able to see the big picture. And you need to test out your instructions, both by yourself and with other people. But ultimately, the ability to write instructions will give you the upper hand in any professional space or interaction — and bring your company the much-needed blessing of effective documentation.

About the Author ()

Nasim Mansuri is passionate about the written word and its role in the betterment of society. She is currently pursuing a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BS in Professional Writing at WPI.

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