What Is a Quick Reference Guide?


Quick reference guides--affectionately known as "cheat sheets"--are a tool for the person who needs to know just enough to get a job done without having to read an entire manual or textbook. Even a person trained in a subject finds quick reference guides useful in jogging the memory.

Cheat Sheets

  • Quick reference guides can take many forms. They could be terse instructions with bullet points that condense a process to one or two pages. They could be charts or even graphics. Most quick reference guides can walk the layman through a process, while others--notably the Circle of Fifths for musicians--appear to mean nothing unless you're trained to read and use them.


  • Most quick reference guides are designed for users who know the material or task but need something in front of them to remind them of the steps. A quick reference guide can take the form of an outline, a chart or a series of bullet points.


  • Quick reference guides can be professionally made or hand-written, from business card size on up. These guides may be in the form of laminated cards, index cards, punch lists, booklets or posters.

Read the Instructions

  • Instructions to many electronic appliances often come with a quick reference guide that shows the basic steps to get the appliance operational without the user having to wade through pages of instructions. Many operations manuals also include a troubleshooting chart--another quick reference guide that can be handy if the appliance does not work.

High Tech

  • Computer programmers make extensive use of cheat sheets, particularly when using programs that require many keyboard commands. The console-based vi and emacs text editors, both popular for coding, use a complex array of commands to get work done.

In the Classroom

  • Students know about quick reference guides. The CliffsNotes series bailed many a student out of a bad grade when he didn't have the time or inclination to read an entire book. But these are much larger than a quick reference guide. Students can buy smaller, more concise guides that boil down the key points of a class or book to a two-sided sheet.

Circle of Fifths

  • Schooled musicians know about the Circle of Fifths, which condenses a great deal of music theory into a graphic that can be read like a clock face. Though somewhat cryptic, this graphic shows the relation of one note to another and enables musicians to understand chord progressions and scales.

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