An Image Is Worth a Thousand Words

by Nick Jensen on June 4, 2013

Many people say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it would not surprise if most of those people are technical writers. When I first started my education in technical writing, I learned the importance of images very quickly. My first technical writing assignment was to explain how to complete a mundane task such as replacing a light bulb or opening a door. Originally, I thought it would be a pointless exercise. After all, how difficult could it be explaining how to replace a light bulb? However, my hubris was short-lived when I discovered how frustratingly tedious it was to write down instructions without any visual aids. You cannot just tell someone to “open the door”. How do you open it? What kind of door are we talking about? Is it a sliding door? Do you push or pull on it? Which direction do you turn the knob (if there even is one)? These are the types of questions my mentor and technical writing instructor told me to contemplate when describing how to carry out a task.

However, the task I had in mind was far different from opening a door. I chose to explain how to clean a lint filter for a Maytag dryer. For your entertainment, here are a few of the steps I used in my assignment:

2) To open the laundry compartment in the dryer, face the machine and look for a rectangular door located at the front of the dryer.

5) After the door unlatches, pull the door to your right until it is perpendicular to the front of the clothes-dryer.

6) Locate the lint filter at the bottom of the door opening. You will recognize the filter by the writing on the filter-handle which says: “CLEAN AND REPLACE FILTER BEFORE EACH USE”.

9) With your fingers gripping the back of the handle, lift your hand upward to remove the filter.

10) Once the bottom of the filter is clear from its slot, turn the filter around 180 degrees right or left so that the side with the lint is facing towards you.

14) Gently sweep your fingertips across the filter screen to dislodge any lint that is attached to it.

19) If the letters on the filter (“CLEAN AND REPLACE FILTER BEFORE EACH USE”) are upside down, turn the handle 180 degrees to the left or the right.

23) Place the palm of your hand on the top of the handle and then push that hand down until the lint-filter is back in its original position as seen in step six.

 

As you may have guessed, this assignment taught me the importance of using images, no matter how simple the task might be. Some people believe that art and music can express emotions more efficiently than words. Well, I believe that images can give better directions than words alone. Almost every product that is produced today comes with some type of visual instructions. There are even images for people who cannot figure out how to insert Pop Tarts into a toaster. So there you have it. The first golden rule I learned about technical writing: make efficient use of images.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Kreger June 4, 2013 at 7:28 pm

I love it! Brings back memories: during my first tech comm class, the instructor asked us to create instructions for making a paper airplane. Easy, right? Wrong! I spent hours writing what I thought to be an easy procedure, but turned out to be a real challenge. I even gave the instructions to a friend, asking him to “build an airplane” based on my steps. He got lost after “Fold the piece of paper in half…” Taught me that tech writing is one of the most difficult and rewarding professions, and that writing clean, simple steps is at the very heart of what we do every day.

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Nick Jensen June 5, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Written instructions for making a paper airplane? Now that’s just cruel!

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Karen Bergen June 5, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Great post, Nick. Never underestimate the importance of illustrations. When we have space limitations, we get rid of as much text as possible and just go with the pictures! Saves on translation too.

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