A printed owner’s manual (OM) is by far the vehicle of choice for a marine company to protect itself from liability in the United States. – just ask your company attorney. The personal injury lawyers are now successfully bypassing admiralty laws that have protected the industry from frivolous lawsuits in the past and the name of the game is Protect Yourself
. There are no federal laws requiring an OM, however, NMMA certification does require one. Lastly, NMMA will accept an electronic OM but your attorney will probably not. Not everyone can be a professional technical writer with a communications degree but if you have a marine background; it is possible to make an acceptable OM.
So, You Want to be a Technical Writer?
In my previous piece “Top Tips for Writing a Boat Owner’s Manual – Part 1”,
I outlined some important first steps to frame your manual, identify content and schedule milestones. That preliminary work is very important, as it will help you determine how to best address the content topics and the level of detail that is required for your audience.
So, what does it take to create a successful OM? If you’re an engineer, you may remember the 6-Ps phrase from school Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
; some people add a 7th
P but I won’t digress…
After more than 40-years in the business and hundreds of OMs, here are a few tips that I’ve learned:
- To reduce printing and inventory costs, most OMs can be written to cover multiple models in the same family with a little ingenuity.
- If you are NMMA Certified, there are several special manual requirements that are found in the various ABYC Standards.
- Talk to your Customer Service to identify the top five phone inquiries from customers. A good OM will answer questions for you and help reduce customer confusion.
- Talk to your Compliance Specialist. They should be aware of safety warning recommendations in various ABYC system standards that may need to be included in your OM.
- Build your content outline in a word-processing program like Microsoft Word. Keep expanding the outline with words and soon you will have a manuscript of the manual!
- Add “cut lines” with reference numbers to the manuscript to indicate where illustrations will go.
- As you’re writing, gather the illustrations you’ll need. At this point, illustrations can be copies from brochures, web pages, drawings or photographs. It’s all right if they are rough but do add any callouts and the reference number as the final illustrations will be produced later.
- Use consistent terminology! For example, if you call it a scupper in one area, don’t call it a cockpit drain in another area.
- Use a concise writing style. Short, proactive sentences and bullet points are much better than overly detailed paragraphs or subjective statements.
- Never plagiarize! Always rewrite text after researching and draw new illustrations.
- Try to make the OM review positive within the company. OMs are not a necessary evil but can be used to improve customer loyalty to the brand. The purpose of an OM is not just liability; it’s also about providing your customer with useful information.
- Know who will be reviewing the document and set expectations. Send the review copy out electronically to each department (such as engineering, marketing and customer service) for a review in parallel instead of series. Set a mandatory review meeting in advance and go through page-by-page with the group. Discuss each comment as necessary and when agreed, add the comment to a master document. Do not accept subjective comments, internal questions, or comments that don’t offer a suggestion/data. Everyone must back-up their comments with reasoning and if all parties are involved, it goes very quickly.
- Do not identify the manual by model year, use a revision system instead.
- Have the company attorney review the manual.
- Use other people’s money! Talk to your Marketing department about providing the cover design or help with publishing the manual. Engineering can often help with illustrations. Do you have a parts & accessory division or vendor partner that may be interested in buying ad space or product placement? There are many innovative ways of off-setting development costs.
- If your manual is placed electronically on the website for download, protect your hard work by watermarking and securing the document! Today’s mindset is that everything on the internet is free and people will steal what they can.