How to write a manual?
If you are an expert in a specific field you may have had the desire to write a manual several times. Because those on the market are not made well, because you are tired of giving photocopies to your students, because you already have a blog and you want to give your readers a deeper look, or for any other reason.
After all, just go to any bookstore or browse Amazon’s pages to see how rich the department dedicated to manuals (also called non-fiction) is. Whether we talk about cooking, personal growth, gardening or yoga, the publishing market produces more and more manuals.
The sector is therefore growing and if you think you have the right skills you are right to write a manual: on those shelves (real or virtual) there is space for everyone.
If you don’t know how to write a manual or if you don’t have time to do it I can write it for you. If you want to try your hand at writing a manual, this brief guide can help you achieve your goal.
1. Choose Care With The Subject
Before writing a manual, carefully choose the topic you want to deal with.
It may seem a silly indication, but it is not. You have to decide exactly what you want to talk about, which means defining the scope of your speech and having in mind what you don’t want to talk about.
One of the most frequent errors I find in the texts I publish, in fact, is the tendency of the authors to want to talk about everything, to want to hint at all aspects of a topic, without being able to go into them further.
The desire to prove that you know so many things must not prevail over the true purpose of a manual: to teach the reader something he does not know.
So better to narrow the field, address a specific topic and address it in depth, rather than talking about everything a little without giving the reader really useful information.
2. Establish Your Target
The second fundamental step to write a manual is to define the target audience. The choice of topics to be discussed, the depth of analysis with which you will deal with them and the style you will adopt will depend on the target you want to reach.
A beginner’s manual will have to start from the basics of the subject, do many practical examples and use simple language by introducing specific terms little by little. A manual addressed to an already formed public, on the other hand, presupposes that readers have skills in the subject and therefore can take for granted some basic information and can immediately adopt the specific vocabulary of the sector.
Once you have decided which group of readers you want to contact you, it is advisable that you say so openly, so that a curious reader who comes close to your book can immediately recognize whether it is for him or not. Insert therefore in the title (or in the subtitle, or in the abstract of the back cover) a clear indication that helps the reader to orient himself. Expressions “for beginners”, “for experts”, or “basic course”, “advanced level” are appreciated and unequivocal.
3. Study Opponents
After having established your topic and your target audience, look around and look for how many and which manuals already exist on the same subject on the market.
If there are already so many of them it does not mean that you cannot write your own: maybe your point of view is innovative, your ability to explain things is better than that of others and your competence in deeper matters.
If there are few manuals on the market that address the topic you want to discuss, it could mean that there is not a very large market for that topic, but it could also be a new field, all to be explored, where you are a pioneer. So don’t be discouraged!
In any case, however, before organizing your manual, read those of others (at least the index) to see how they deal with the subject and how they structure the chapters. You will need to have clearer ideas about what you want to do.
4. Collect the Material
If you are an expert in a subject you may think that you already have all the information you need to write a manual.
It is not so. During the writing phase you may find useful quotes, internet addresses, definitions, books to suggest to readers to learn more about, or many other small things. Searching from time to time for what you need can take away a lot of time and above all can distract you from the writing process.
Prepare all the material in advance and keep it ready.
In writing the text you can decide to cite your sources with the footnotes, as you use them, or group them at the bottom of the book on a page dedicated to the bibliography.
In the collection of the material he also thinks about images. Are there images, graphics or diagrams that can accompany your explanations and make them clearer? How about breaking too long blocks of text with relevant images that make the manual more usable? And what image did you think of for your cover?
5. Organize the lineup of topics and set the index
To write an effective manual the topic organization phase must be tackled very seriously. You can’t write a manual without a clear project of what you want to say, how and to whom.
Unfortunately, my experience as an editor tells me that this phase is often overlooked or completely ignored. Many feel they are experts in their subject and start writing a manual thinking that it is like having a chat with a friend (some literally transcribe lectures held by the arm) or they just do a collage of articles written previously without checking the logic and the consistency of the text that comes out of it.
The problem is this: knowing things does not mean knowing how to explain them!
You can be a great expert on your subject, but if you don’t know how to explain the concepts in a logical order (premises-consequences, cause-effect) and with a clear language, nobody will understand you.
So, if your goal is to write a manual that is read and appreciated by the public, take the design phase very seriously.
Draw up a list of the main contents; then, for each of these, add subtopics. Use bulleted or numbered lists, which help you visualize the structure of the topics. The more you can go into detail, the easier it will be to write.
In this way you will organize a list of topics that corresponds to the index of the chapters and sub-chapters of your book.
Ask yourself at every step if the topics are arranged in the right order: if to understand the contents of chapter 5 you have to read the explanations contained in chapter 7, then there is something wrong.
As you can see, the preparatory phase for writing a manual is very long. But it is fundamental. You can’t write a cast manual, following the wave of inspiration. A manual must be organized and structured.
For this reason it often happens that the preparation phase (selection of the topic, analysis of the target and competitors, collection and organization of the material) lasts much longer than the actual writing phase.
Indeed, if you have done all the preparatory work well, the writing phase should not take you long. You have already decided what to say, now you just have to put it in writing!
But how do you write a manual?
Do you remember the phrase that Denzel Washington always repeated to Tom Hanks in the film Philadelphia? “Explain it to me as if you were 2, okay?”
Here, a manual should be written like this: in a clear and understandable way for everyone.
By this I do not mean that you should treat your reader as a fool, but you must always remember that your purpose is to explain, or to teach something to someone who does not know it.
So use clear language, without too long or twisted phrases. Adopt the specific terms of the subject, but the first time you introduce them, explain the meaning, especially if you’re addressing an audience of beginners.
Give practical examples and if you use the similarities make sure they are really in common use: there is nothing worse than trying to explain a difficult concept with a comparison that nobody understands.
Decide which person to use, the “you”, the “you” or the “we”, and be consistent with your choice throughout the book.
I advise you to use the “you” because, although you want to turn to an audience, in reality every reader reads by himself and if you use the “you” he will feel that you are addressing him precisely. In some passages you can use the “we” if you imagine you stand next to the reader and you want to indicate that you and he are part of the same group.
The impersonal verbal forms (“one must”, “one does”) are instead preferable if you are writing a technical or academic manual.
Finally, as far as style is concerned, it is up to you to decide the degree of formality to be adopted in your manual. In general, the informative manuals are aimed at the reader with a certain familiarity.
The risk, however, is that of falling into colloquial forms, unsuitable for non-fictional texts, or of wanting to be funny and making jokes to which the reader will not laugh.
Have you ever read comedy books? When you listen to them on TV they make you laugh out loud, but if you read the same monologues in a book you barely smile.
To avoid this risk, simply imagine talking to a person who shares your same passion but whom you have known recently: you are talking about her and you try to involve her in your speech, but you don’t allow yourself the confidence you would have with an old friend.
7. Correct, Correct, Correct
I will never cease to insist on the need for careful editing for each text that you want to make public.
If you want to write a manual then consider also editing and proofreading in the programming of the work phases.
If you can trust a professional editor, you can have your book read by two or three different people you trust. If they know nothing about the topic covered in the manual, better! They will be your guinea pigs and can tell you with sincerity if the concepts are displayed in a logical order and with a clear language.
Moreover, the purpose of writing a manual is to convey your knowledge. Keep this goal in mind and you will succeed in your business.