Present tense in instructions?

Subject: Present tense in instructions?
From: "Geoff Hart (by way of \"Eric J. Ray\" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>)" <ght -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Mon, 28 Sep 1998 08:29:33 -0600

Thomas Quine wondered about preferences for <<Click on the Postings
button. The Posting dialog box [appears/will appear].>>

The last time we discussed this, the consensus was that present tense
is always preferable because "will" is indefinite and begs the
question of just when the dialog "will" appear. "Appear" is also an
equivocal word, because it's somewhat mystical (it's passive and
dissociates the action from the result) and because it's got an
equally strong connotation of how or where the dialog box appears
(e.g., "it appears at the top of the screen, in neon colors", "the
dialog box appears to be ready for input, but isn't really... you'll
have to wait a bit longer") rather than the act of becoming visible.
Although the usage trend is strongly towards "click the button"
rather than "click on", I don't believe either is really wrong or
likely to disorient a reader. That being said, my take on this
question is that there's a simpler solution that also follows the
very good rule that you should always explain the goal before you
provide instruction on how to get there:

1. To open the Posting dialog box, click the Postings button.
2. In the Posting dialog box, enter the.... [etc.]

In step 1, I'd actually rather see something task-based like "to
enter the address" or "to enter new accounts receivable data", but
I've left that for a second revision since I didn't know what type of
"posting" you're referring to here. Why is this a good rule? Consider
the instruction "click OK to delete all your files beyond hope of
recovery". What proportion of your audience just deleted their files
by reflexively clicking OK before finding out what that click would
do? That's an extreme example, and there are better ways to format
such dangerous instructions, but it makes the point about why context
should precede specifics for most instructions.
--Geoff Hart @8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

When an idea is wanting, a word can always be found to take its place.--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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