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Writing A User Manual (part 1)
It ain't easy writing a user manual...but our cheat sheet should help.

| The Write Stuff |

Depending on who you speak to, documentation is either the best part of a software project...or the worst.

Most developers wouldn't be caught dead writing a user manual - they much prefer spending their time building better, more efficient algorithms. Their users, on the other hand, don't really care about the code that powers a software application; they're more interested in getting their work done quickly, with minimal errors.

That's where support documentation, in the form of a user manual, comes in. Usually considered one of the least important deliverables, it is slowly coming of age, as software companies begin to realize the value of high-quality documentation that answers most user questions and reduces after-sales support calls (and expense).

Support documentation allows the user to use the delivered software with ease and efficiency. Ideally, it comprises:

1. Interface text: The labels on interface elements like menu items, fields, instructions, confirmations, error messages et al.

2. Application messages: Operational error messages and warnings.

3. Online documentation: Online help, tutorial and searchable help pages.

4. Print documentation: User manual and technical reference manual.

These, in totem, are the user's support system for usage of the software.

This article focuses on the user manual, explaining, from a technical writer's perspective, the process by which such a manual is developed, reviewed and delivered. I believe, though, that the process and planning tips are generic enough to apply to the other print documents, in accordance with both their purpose and scope.


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