How I Learned to Read The F — ing Manual

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Growing up, I never read a user manual. How much information would I retain? My eyes glazed over within pages of any manual I tried to go through, and I took that as a sign that I shouldn’t bother.

I had a lot of failed attempts at learning software. When I went online to search for answers, my errors were made clear.

The first thing you’ll see on any software webforum is the acronym RTFM. It stands for “Read The Fucking Manual” and is considered a catch-all solution for most beginner problems. RTFM is like another way of saying, “the only reason we know this and you don’t is because we read the manual”

The first recorded usage of RTFM is on the table of contents for a piece of calculation software, LINPack, in 1979. It was probably used prior to that, but nobody knows where or when. The simple zing of the catchphrase allowed it to catch on and become a common saying.

Now I can understand why so many people are so insistent about the idea of reading the manual. For a lot of software, the manual does contain most of the answers.

The software developers provide hundreds of pages of user manual for a reason: it works! The manual exists because it’s the fastest way for most people to get up to speed with a new software tool. Keep in mind that most developers would like users to have an easy time learning and working with their product.

By now I am grateful for every good user manual I come across. These documents help me to do better work.

Book Layout Software and RTFM-Ing

My RTFM awakening came while working on a book layout project.

I received a few hundred dollars of tokens from the LBRY blockchain to support the creation of a public domain eBook for Siddhartha, since I plan to host the book on their blockchain/app. Setting up a 150 page eBook is a big task and I hoped to get it right on the first try. I decided to read the manual first.

Scribus’s manual is exceptional. They have a great “quick-start guide” that walks you through an easy project which shows off most of the software’s key features. After that, it’s about a hundred pages of documentation explaining every single button you can click within the software.

I felt like my eyes were glazing over within pages. It was boring, the information seemed like it wouldn’t stick to my brain. There was no way I would retain any of this. I read onward, forcing myself to focus.

On the first day, I got through half of the manual before reaching total mental shutdown. On the second day, I finished the manual and got to work laying out the first chapter of Siddhartha.

I was right that I wouldn’t remember much of the specifics from the manual. It wasn’t like I had an instant command over the software. Instead I had something more practical — a clear memory of how to troubleshoot my own problems.

When I wanted to adjust the text in a certain way, I could remember with precision which part of the manual contained that info. I had created a clear map of where all the relevant knowledge was.

I was amazed to find myself feeling comfortable with the software within hours. My fluency with Scribus started at a higher level than I would have imagined possible.

RTFM worked.

You Only RTFM Once

One good thing about the RTFM method is that you only have to read the manual once for each piece of software. It’s not something you have to do over and over again.

Reading the manual may be boring or mind-scrambling, especially towards the end of the first day. That’s ok. You can persevere. Even if it takes 5+ hours, it will be worth it.

Since you know you will never have to read the same guide twice, you can think of each one as a marathon. You don’t run marathons very often, and when you do, mile 19 probably always sucks. The point is to get to the finish line no matter what.

It is probably best to set a tight deadline for any manual you read. 48 hours should be plenty to take down a manual — its not like the source material will get more interesting if you wait.

Will It Always Work?

The value of an RTFM session probably depends on the quality of the manual. Scribus’s excellent manual reflects a lot of work on their part to keep it updated and useful. Other software may not be so good.

For any program or app that has good documentation, I suspect that RTFM really is the best first move. It takes some time up front, but it delivers that time back and much more through the productivity benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, it gives me a sense of control over what I am doing. I don’t feel helpless in a weird piece of software after I read the manual. Rather than being in a strange land with no idea how the language works, I’m in a somewhat comfortable setting with a limited vocabulary. It’s a long way from mastery, but it feels great and that mindset improvement cannot be underestimated.

Even if there is not a user manual, sometimes there are good YouTube tutorials or other places where you can find educational content for popular software.

I will continue reading the manual and investing more time in general into educating myself about new software before I try to create things. In the past I have always wanted to move as fast as possible, and this has its benefits. Now I’d like to slow it down and develop more of a mastery-oriented approach where I want to be great at using the digital tools in my workflow.

If you, like me, have never considered yourself much of an RTFM person… give it a try. Especially if you are often frustrated by technology issues.

The knowledge and skills you are looking for may be more accessible than you realized. You’re a smart person after all… why not try?