Posted by: John Colby | Saturday August 30 2008


RTFM is an expression common in support desks in the computer industry.  However when you come up against technical authors who write manuals then you realise that this may not be advice that’s very easily followed.

This was brought home to me today by attempting to replace a bulb on the car. Nothing to it. You read the manual and follow the instructions. Hah!

On mine it says that you unclip the light from behind the bumper (it’s a fog light) and remove the lamp housing from the front. What it doesn’t say is that you need to do this by braille – you can’t see what you’re doing because there’s things like anti-roll bars and wheels in the way. What it also doesn’t say is that you should remove the connector first.

So the light housing is out and the bulb installed – now to get it back in. Fitting is the reverse of the removal procedure, says the manual. Three quarters of an hour later, having eventually fed the fixing clip through the hole and discovered that it’s almost impossible to seat it without moving some more electrics out of the way it’s in and reconnected.

And it doesn’t work.

So lie on the ground again and try to work out which way round the electrics go back in. Then it works. Eventually.

So I’ve learned something today. Next time I’m going to pay Halfords the three quid to fit it and it’ll be well worth it.

Whoever wrote the manual had never actually performed the task.

To put it into context, while I was performing my son removed and replaced the whole front windscreen in his Land Rover in a shorter time.

Computer manuals can throw up different meanings. Mainly they’re translated from the Japanese, which may explain why the nuances of English are sometimes overlooked. One such example is in the troubleshooting section of a laser printer manual the company I was then with acquired twenty years ago. It told you how to cure a “contaminated back side“. To appreciate this you need to have a command of vernacular English. We think (hope) it meant that the non-printed side of the paper had toner marks.

And manual writers like to have jokes. In the glossary of the Apple //e Reference Manual (1985 or 6) there appears a definition of “write only memory“. The link I’ve given is a 28Mb download of a PDF and the full reference can be found at the top of page 250.

And yes, I’ve written manuals for software, and yes, I’ve made some as well. Some of them were intentional.


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