Let’s say, hypothetically, that your car battery died. And let’s say that your car has a navigation system that requires a four-digit “Radio/Navigation Code” to reactivate it if it loses power. And let’s say you can’t find the card with the code on it. What do you do?
Not to worry! The manufacturer keeps a Web site where you can retrieve the code. All you need is your vehicle identification number and the serial number of the navigation system.
How do you find the serial number? Oh, wait—there’s a help page.
Serial Number Retrieval Help
There are several places to find your device’s serial number:
The Radio/Navigation Code and the device unit’s serial number are listed on the anti-theft ID card that comes with the vehicle. The card is usually placed in the glove box at the time of delivery.
And that’s all it says. “There are several places,” but it tells me only one place.
That’s limited information, and the way the laws of the universe are currently constituted, it will never be useful to a single sentient being. Ever. No one who has the “anti-theft ID card” with the Radio/Navigation Code on it is ever going to be on this site trying to find the serial number so as to be able to retrieve the Radio/Navigation Code. This entire page is useless information.
How would you have recognized that if you were the writer?
First, the word “several” should have set an automatic flag in your head. You should not be satisfied until you have listed the several ways, or until you have got somebody in the technical department to admit that there’s really only one way. Either the word “several” has to go, or there have to be several ways.
Second, and this is the most important rule in any technical writing, put yourself in the place of the reader. Such a simple rule, but unfortunately it’s a vague one. You have to try to imagine what the reader is doing. In this case, the reader is trying to retrieve the Radio/Navigation Code, right? Therefore, the reader does not have the card with the Radio/Navigation Code on it. You cannot, therefore, assume that the reader will be able to retrieve some other information from the same card.
If you can explain to yourself what problem the reader is trying to solve, you will almost certainly write usable instructions. (The reader is always trying to solve some problem, unless the reader is reading instruction manuals for fun.) If you do not know what problem the reader is trying to solve, then that is the problem you have to solve before you can write anything.