Tips on Writing a Good FAQ

Why and How to Write a FAQ?

Many companies' help lines are usually crowded with customers trying to find an answer for their questions. Some of these questions are legitimate; others seem to be made just to annoy the help staff. FAQs are supposed to prevent such situations by offering potential help line "customers" the chance to find the information they are looking for on their own, without necessarily picking up the phone or sending e-mail.

What Are FAQs?

FAQ is the abbreviation for Frequently Asked Questions. FAQs are organized "collections" of valuable information that usually comes from questions (and their corresponding answers) for the most common issues raised by users, on various topics. Companies make up such information compilations in order to fulfill their customers' need for answers.

They are also a means to ease the burden of the customer support group by providing answers in written form to the most commonly asked questions.

FAQs can be available online or offline, burnt on CDs or DVDs. The second choice is more viable for people who don't have access to the Internet, though this is a highly unlikely situation.

Writing an FAQ

Why should you write an FAQ?

The most common advice when it comes to writing FAQ documentation is that, if you have some experience in a particular field, if you have ever come across issues that you finally managed to solve, it's good to let other people know it too. FAQs are basically about sharing information in a non-selfish manner.

When you submit your FAQs to the appropriate newsgroups, you stand a good chance of getting good feedback on your work, and thus your efforts will be rewarded.

An FAQ will almost automatically make you an "expert" (more or less) in your field. People will contact you and will help you maintain your FAQ up-to-date either by asking yourself more questions (in this case you'll have to do some research and update your work), or simply by getting hold of more relevant information, based on their own experience that can be added to your FAQ.

What should you write about?

The possibilities are endless. Practically, any subject will do. There will always be questions, let's say, regarding the compatibility between a particular piece of hardware and some software, or about configuration errors, etc. If you figure out which could be the most common problems and you have the answers for them, just go ahead and write.

Special considerations

It's a good idea to include a disclaimer in your FAQ. You should mention there things like the fact that, that as far as you know, the information provided in the FAQ is accurate (or was accurate at the time you posted the respective FAQ on the Web or in a newsgroup), but that you cannot be held liable for any inconvenience caused by following those instructions or using that information.

You can also copyright the information in the FAQ that you submit for public use. Specify the terms under which the information can or can't be used without your specific consent, under penalty of law. It can give you the legal basis just in case.. Yet, experts say that this usually does not work since there are numerous companies that gather loads of FAQs from directories on the Web, burn them on CDs or DVDs, and then sell them.

A Few Tips for Writing FAQs

When you set out to write an FAQ, it is good to follow a few guidelines. Among these, we consider that it's worth mentioning:

  • Put yourself in your audience's shoes; figure out what questions might be asked and provide the answers that you'd like to hear/read
  • Mind your grammar and spelling; always remember to review what you write, or have somebody else do it for you
  • Be concise enough to offer the necessary information in the least amount of words and time, but don't be as concise as to leave the reader under the impression that they have gained nothing by reading what you have written. Check also an article about writing good software documentation.
  • Remember to use bullets when you have lists
  • Split the text you are writing into short paragraphs, ideally one for each question you're answering
  • Be accurate in what you say; check your information sources, it adds to your credibility
  • Make your FAQ readable; write a text that is well organized and with a nice layout
  • Organize your FAQ as a set of questions and answers
  • Don't be afraid to leave enough white space; it also improves the readability of your FAQ
  • Don't exaggerate with the FAQ's size; experts say that the best size is 64K, but there will be servers that will allow FAQs larger than 100K, while others will only host FAQs of 32K or less
  • Avoid marketing texts in your FAQ; people want straight answers, in a language that is easily understood by all, not just some fluff that is meant to dazzle, yet say nothing of real use to them
  • Write about what people really need to know
  • Use the active rather than the passive voice to avoid ambiguities
  • Allow your readers to rate the accuracy/usefulness of the answers you provide; this will help you improve the FAQ and, again, increase its (as well as your own) credibility. Find out more about writing for the web.
  • If possible, create a "table of contents" with the most important questions and place it at the top of the FAQ page; in the case of Web based FAQs, link each question to its corresponding answer for easier access.

Video FAQs - When and Why?

Taking into account that people nowadays read less that they did several years ago and that they rely mostly on images to deliver information to them, it is not far-fetched to turn a text-based FAQ into a video one. This approach can be salutary when the FAQ takes the form of a tutorial, or a demo.

It's easier to explain to people what to do with a particular product or how to configure or use certain software by using short movie strips than making them read several pages of instructions.

It is not difficult to produce a video FAQ. As long as you respect such tips for FAQ documentation as the ones mentioned above (of course, some must be adapted to the different nature of this FAQ), there is no obvious reason why this approach shouldn't be considered. It might even prove more helpful than "conventional" FAQs.

Conclusions

FAQs are a valuable tool. They provide quick access to data and instructions, and are meant to help people obtain the necessary information without necessarily getting into contact with another person. But in order to fulfill its purpose, an FAQ must be accurate, up-to-date, concise, readable and original. A well-written FAQ will considerably diminish the amount of time spent by help personnel with replying to e-mails or with extensive, nerve-wrecking phone calls.

There is no guarantee that an FAQ is efficient even though people won't call the support staff to solve their problems, and even ask what they could qualify as "silly questions". But FAQ documentation is, most of the times, a valuable alternative.

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Comments (2)

Cindy says:
June 18th, 2008 at 10:56 pm

"Allow your readers to rate the accuracy/usefulness of the answers you provide; this will help you improve the FAQ and, again, increase its (as well as your own) credibility."

How do I do this? I want something similar to what is on this site? Where can I find it?

Colin says:
January 25th, 2010 at 2:41 am

"If possible, create a "table of contents" with the most important questions and place it at the top of the FAQ page; in the case of Web based FAQs, link each question to its corresponding answer for easier access."

I think this is a good practice for now, but quickly searchable FAQs might be even better. I've created a site that lets you add FAQs to your own pages. The questions can be searched.

Another important issue is that you should keep your FAQs up to date with new questions. As new trends and technologies arrive so will new questions. With BreezyFAQ (my faq service) visitors can quickly ask questions on your FAQ page that you can answer directly and/or add to your FAQ.

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