How to Write an Instruction Manual Layout

Written by michael macleod
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How to Write an Instruction Manual Layout
A cookbook is a popular type of instruction manual. (meat thermometer image by Kimberly Reinick from

An instruction manual can be as simple as a cookbook or as complex as an assembly manual for a jet airliner. In either case, the manual's design can help or hinder you when you try to use it. A "layout" can mean one or both of two things: the order in which the information is presented, or the way the information appears on the page or screen and the relationships between the graphic elements on the page or screen. Define the scope of the instruction manual and determine the graphic and text elements you will use before you create either kind of layout.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Page design/word processing software
  • Outlining software (optional)

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  1. 1

    Create an outline for your instruction manual listing all tasks and subtasks in the order you decide upon. Microsoft Word contains an outlining feature that will automate the process for you.

  2. 2

    Include space in your format for all the various parts of instruction manuals, including such sections as table of contents, an index, diagrams of parts showing how to assemble them, usage instructions and any other sections relevant to your technical content. Not all sections will be required for all manuals, so depending on what your instruction manual is for, add or subtract these from the outline. Make the outline as detailed as possible so that the manual will be easier to write in final form.

  3. 3

    Decide what the manual format will be. If it is a collection of self-contained tasks, like a cookbook, you have more presentation options than if the manual is a set of sequential subtasks that lead to an overall result, such as a manual showing you how to disassemble an engine.

    If you need to replicate the information in several formats (such as printed pages, computer screens, and cell phone screens) you may want to use a "single sourcing" framework like XML and DITA. These tools let you separate the information from the format so the information can be "repurposed" more easily. If you decide to "single source" your information, plan for it as early in the process as possible. You will produce blocks of information ("topics") and multiple delivery formats, requiring multiple graphic layouts.

  4. 4

    Create a layout in a page design program such as FrameMaker (for text-heavy projects whose format does not change much from page to page) or InDesign (for graphics-heavy projects, or manuals where the basic visual design varies from page to page).

Tips and warnings

  • As a rule of thumb, a ratio of one-third white space to two-thirds text and graphics is pleasing to the eye and easier to read than a page jammed with text.
  • Use no more than two typefaces per page.
  • Align elements such as boxes of text, photographs, charts and other graphic elements with each other and the margins of the text on the page.

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