How to write a quick reference guide
Since we’ve already delved into how to create a reference guide, let’s now talk about a document with a similar name but different purpose—the quick reference guide.
What is a quick reference guide?
Unlike a general reference guide that includes every single option for every single button or screen in a product, a quick reference guide is a slimmed down version and includes information that people want to be able to quickly look at to find out how to do some sort of task. I like to think of these as cheat sheets. Instead of having to search through lots of descriptions in online help, you can have all of the information you want in one place.
What are the keyboard shortcuts when you’re using Microsoft Word to insert special characters? This quick reference guide lists them all on the first page (plus lots of other helpful information). That website has many other great examples.
Here are several quick reference guides about different aspects of the engineering design software AutoCAD in a website format.
Here’s a hospitality and food and beverage service quick reference guide to get Oracle support.
You can see that that these documents are VERY different from a full-blown reference guide. The idea with a quick reference guide is it’s something you can print out and put on your desk to quickly look at as you’re working. I have a Microsoft Word quick reference guide on my bulletin board so I can glance at it when I need to remember a shortcut key to add in different types of dashes.
For more technical quick reference guides, like the examples about technical support, that might be something that’s posted in a common area of an office. It’s not something you put on your desk, but it’s a fast way to find information about how to get technical support if you run into problems.
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How to write a quick reference guide
There’s not a whole lot of writing in quick references guides, and what writing is included should be brief and to the point.
If you’re working on a product with lots of shortcut keys that are documented in a user guide or reference guide, you can pull them all out to include in a quick reference guide. To get started, you just make a list of every single one you want to include, preferably in alphabetic order.
If you’re writing a technical support quick reference guide, it’s a good idea to collaborate with the technical support department. The quick reference guide can help address common questions people have and solve problems before they have to contact technical support. You can also list all of the ways to contact technical support.
For online quick reference guides, like in the AutoCAD example above, you want to list common tasks and techniques. People can bookmark it or print out that page.
How to design a quick reference guide
If you want something users can print out, you have to really think about the layout and design. A layout that is really easy to glance at and find the information you want is idea. Let’s consider the examples on this site. There’s an illustration of the software at the top, then small boxes identify different types of information people need to be able to quickly find. I like how the keyboard shortcuts and editing shortcuts include the shortcuts themselves in a bold font so they’re easy to find.
Documents like this can be designed in any type of layout software, even Microsoft Word. You can use tables or text boxes with borders to build sections for each group of information you collected, and arrange your information in a visually appealing way.
This is getting more into the realm of graphic design than writing, but basic graphic design is a fantastic skill for business writers to learn.
As with most of the examples we’ve looked at, it’s important to keep a quick reference guide to just one or two pages—because it should be quick.
This is a good option for a portfolio sample
You can create your own quick reference guide for software you have on your computer to use as a portfolio sample. If you have access to Microsoft Word or Google Docs you can build a document that looks great. Plus, by building your own quick reference guide, you’ll become very familiar with the software.
What else do you want to know about quick reference guides? Leave a comment below.