A Step-by-Step Fan by
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The fan I assembled, my biggest triumph, still in use during the summer.

I’ve rarely attempted assembling all but the simplest items. With my weak wrists and limited spatial abilities, I hesitate to put things together. Even at one of my first jobs, as a marketing writer, the engineers knew me and wanted me to test “customer installation procedures.” They figured, “if Marian could put the equipment together, any customer could.”

Once I got home and opened the box, I realized the fan was in several pieces ... my heart sank ...

About seven years after that job, I stumbled into technical writing when I was an independent consultant and my clients realized I had a talent for explaining to novices how to do tasks. Part of this talent came from the frustration of looking at drawings indecipherable to me and trying to follow sketchy or misleading instructions. Technical folks in particular have blind spots when it comes to assembling or setting up equipment, because “of course everyone knows you need to [fill in the blank].” And of course everyone does not.

One summer about 15 years ago, I decided having a small fan could help cool our second story in the evenings, when the house was stuffy but air conditioning wasn’t essential. I found a fan that looked to be the size and weight I wanted, in a box that appeared to be its actual size. The price was right, and I bought it. Once I got home and opened the box, I realized the fan was in several pieces, with an instruction sheet that assured the owner that no tools were required. My heart sank as I saw only drawings on the sheet. As a verbal person, I longed for a set of numbered steps.

Fortunately, after a few mistakes and false starts, I managed to attach the fan blades to the body, and then the cage around the blades, and snap the on/off lever to the body. The instructions were right–no tools were required. To my delight, the fan worked. Since then I’ve rarely pushed my luck. I have enough trouble changing batteries on remotes and the like, and don’t get me started on swapping out the batteries in our smoke alarms, standing on a ladder and stretching to reach a nine-foot ceiling.

So why do all those flat box items have poor or missing written steps? It takes money to pay a decent writer to create and test the instructions (this is more difficult and time consuming than it seems). It takes money to pay for extra paper and production. Drawings are so much easier to produce, and with so many goods made outside the US and sold globally, they don’t require multiple languages and very expensive translation. The days of good, detailed step-by-step instructions are nearly gone.

I’m still an advocate for written steps and descriptions when possible. Just before I started this story, I edited and wrote captions for a video demonstrating how to set up a complex research instrument. The procedure went through mounting sets of tubing and threading them into valves and pumps, connecting bags of reagents all over the instrument to the tubing, and inserting various components into different chambers. The video images were very good, but I’m hoping my pithy sentences will help people unfamiliar with the instrument have a better understanding of it.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. I wish you had written all the user manuals I’ve used later Mare, often the English ain’t very good!

    I’m glad that for you assembling the fan was a breeze!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I am with you 100%, Mare. Like you, I can follow written tasks, but need everything spelled out for me (I don’t even like modoren GPS – what does it mean to be ready to turn in 50 feet; how far is 50 feet?). I am not a spatial person. And not technical at all, but I can change batteries (though, also cannot reach smoke detectors).

    I applaud your work on the fan. Good job. And great job with the tech writing. That is such an important task. When John Zussman was beta testing Retrospect, he figured if I could do the task, then any writer could (also, in areas where I needed help, he knew they needed to make it simpler if they wanted to appeal to a broad range of non-technical users. I was their target user – someone with lots of stories, but limited technical skills who had been out of the work place for years, so not up-to-date on current computer usage).

    • Marian says:

      John has long had my respect as a tech writer, Betsy, for exactly the reasons you describe. And I agree that sometimes GPS instructions have me confused. Dick’s daughter’s Apple version is the most helpful I’ve encountered. It really describes what you are supposed to do and where you need to turn.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Thank you for your careful work writing technical instructions—that is pure gold. I share your love of clear explanations, and it drives me crazy when it is assumed people will be able to jump from A to C without the benefit of B. Computers are the worst. Everyone “knows”three lines in a corner are a menu, or hovering some random place will uncover a link, or right clicking will do the trick, or “got it” means you acknowledge something. I figure that if I have a question, I am probably not the only one, and I have a lot of questions.

    • Marian says:

      Agree, Khati, and imagine the frustration in helping my 93-year-old mom learn to use her cell phone. So much is assumed. In the “old days” we used to write long tutorials, and they really helped people become familiar with all the concepts they’d need. Alas, now the folks in charge don’t think that’s needed because they don’t need to learn. Talk about not paying attention to your users …

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Your sentences would certainly help me. Like you, I’m a verbal step-by-stepper. When the pictures don’t make sense, I start to freelance. Sometimes using logic is better than trying to follow those drawings.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Both John Z. and you have it exactly right, IMHO. Just write clear instructions — putting yourself in the place of the person trying to assmeble the piece — and the piece will be assembled correctly. So write those instructions, and make them clear, dammit! Conversely, I have little sympathy for those who eschew instructions when they are included and when they are clear. I kick mysrlf when I mess things up and realize that — oops! — I didn’t do Step 3. That’s on me, not the item’s retailer or manufacturer. (Except maybe IKEA, who I’m convinced is an Evil Empire out to sabotage all our furniture and drive us crazy in the process.) .

    So, again, on behalf of a humble nation, thank you for all you do.

  6. Suzy says:

    Mare, I love that the engineers at that long-ago job figured “if Marian could put the equipment together, any customer could.” That’s exactly the kind of beta tester you need, just as you and Betsy and I were all beta testers here for the same reason. As you say, when tech folks assume “everyone knows you need to. . .” they are wrong. I’m sure the directions you write are much clearer and more useful that what we are usually subjected to!

  7. Congratulations on your assembly victory, Marian. Especially considering how articulate you were (in a concise, sequentially accurate description)about your shortcomings as a handywoman. And so smart to put you to the task of writing instructions! All scientists, engineers, and even product sales people, most accountants, lawyers talk in acronym-littered codes as a matter of habit. You probably cleared those lofty tendencies out of your instructions with great aplomb. And then there are the Chinese and Japanese instruction manuals. Oy.

    • Marian says:

      Oy indeed, Charles. Some Japanese companies do translations and then pass them by a native English speaking editor (called “localization” in the profession). Those instructions are usually solid. The most hilarious example of a fractured manual I’ve encountered came from Korea, for a portable ultrasound machine. It was so unintentionally funny that both the client and I laughed till we cried. Fortunately my task was to rewrite the entire thing.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    A fun tale. Way to persevere!

    I have actually written operations manuals for analytical instruments. I pride myself that with one of my cheat sheets, a person with NO experience can (slowly) run one to the machines. This, however, requires multiple drafts and extensive beta-testing by undergraduates. The problem is, when you know a multi-step procedure cold, it is VERY hard to consciously remember all the things that you do. Amazing how many scientistical machines hide the on/off switch….

    Another problem with instructions is that items get changed, redesigned, upgraded, downgraded or degraded, but the instruction document seldom gets a corresponding update.

    • Marian says:

      Right you are on all, counts, Dave. That’s why, in the “old” days when I was in a client’s labs in person, I would sit by the scientist/operator and observe everything they did so we wouldn’t miss a step. That’s really hard right now, although today’s software simulators do help. Companies just hate maintaining their documents, but there is much better authoring software to do it today, so I don’t believe in their excuses (time and money).

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