Guide to Strong Policy Writing

Elisabeth O'Quinn
Post by Elisabeth O'Quinn
Originally published August 4, 2022, updated August 24, 2022
Guide to Strong Policy Writing

So, you've been tasked with writing a policy for your company. Policy writing can sometimes feel unnecessary, outlining specific rules and requirements that seem intuitive.

But policies answer important questions and ensure safety/best practices are understood in daily organization operations and activities. Let's first look at the definition of policy writing. We then break down the policy development process into five key steps. 

What is policy writing?

Policy writing is creating a type of technical document that presents a set of guidelines or rules (hint: it's NOT a how-to document for following the rules -- that's a procedure that can be part of a policy). Policies should be:

  • Concise and easy to understand.
  • Factual and accurate.
  • Living documents (policies need to be updated periodically).

The audience or reader of the policy depends on the type. Here are four types of common policies:

  • Public policy (e.g., governmental ones)
  • Organizational or company policy (e.g., created by individual companies)
  • Functional policy (e.g., departmental ones)
  • Specific policy (e.g., insurance policy)

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Organizations and companies can have many policies. For example, say that your company has an overall company policy that includes rules for employee code of conduct, workplace health and safety, and the dress code.

Your marketing department has a separate policy that outlines rules for gift-giving. Your finance department might have a policy detailing financial employees' roles and responsibilities. Overlapping policies should have consistent language and requirements.

Strong policy writers are crucial to ensuring that policies are effective and consistent. Here's how to do just that.  

Step 1: Plan your policy

Maybe you have more than one policy to write (companies like Coca-Cola have an entire library of policies!). Create a timeline for when you'll plan, draft, and revise each one. Select one policy to get started. Next, a major part of the policy process is planning before drafting. Planning the content first is crucial for efficiency and effectiveness. 

For example, how are current processes completed? What do day-to-day tasks look like? Do other policies already exist that would impact this one? Are there any regulations or accreditation standards? This information will impact the amount of detail you include and more! 

Step 2: Structure the content & ask for input 

Once you've analyzed your audience and purpose, map out your policy's content. What information will you include? What are your main points? Your subpoints? How will you organize the sections? Creating an outline or concept map can help get your ideas on paper and speed up the actual writing process. 

The structure or the organization of the sections will depend on the policy type. Below is an example structure for an accident reporting company policy: 

  1. Policy brief & purpose
  2. Scope (who the policy affects)
  3. Policy elements (what should be reported)
  4. Procedure for reporting
  5. Disciplinary consequences

An anti-bribery policy's structure might be set up similarly, but the sequence of the sections could change:

  1. Policy summary
  2. Purpose and goals of the policy
  3. Risk and/or consequences of non-compliance
  4. Scope and range of application
  5. Policy details (e.g., applicable laws)

Select a policy structure that makes the most logical sense for the reader. It can be helpful to use a template or review other company examples. However, use your audience and policy's purpose as your document's North Star. Make sure your writing process drives the template -- not the other way around. 

As you set up your policy's structure, ask for input from others on the policy team. Collaborate on the structure and overall content now so you don't have to rearrange or revise extensively later on. 

Step 3: Write the policy

Use your detailed content plan to draft the actual policy. As you write the document, remember that your reader is the center of the action. Write to meet their needs and enhance their understanding.

Here are a few tips for creating a reader-focused policy:

  • Keep it short. Policies are already complex. You can still write detailed descriptions, but take the time to make the document as concise and clear as possible. This helps with reader understanding. 

  • Be specific about who does what. It might seem intuitive, but spell out who the policy applies to (e.g., all employees). Also, break down the responsibilities and duties of different employees, departments, etc., if applicable. 

  • Use precise words and short sentences. No need to use fancy words in a policy. Write in easy-to-understand language and short sentences. 

  • Write in the active voice. Active is more engaging than passive voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action (e.g., "all employees must adhere to these steps"). In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is what's being acted upon (e.g., "these steps must be adhered to by all employees"). 

  • Ensure visuals are easy to understand. If your policy includes visuals such as graphics or tables, ensure that they make sense. Also, make sure they aren't blurry and are appropriately labeled. 

  • Follow a style guide. A style guide helps you write in a particular style. It provides a set of standards or writing rules/recommendations for the tone, grammar, and structure of a technical document. If your company doesn't already follow a particular one (e.g., AP Stylebook), here's a list of technical writing style guides to consider. 

  • Cut the jargon. You might have a technical background and understand certain terms, but your reader might not. Avoid jargon and spell out terms and meanings.  

Step 4: Use a standardized format.  

Policy standardization ensures consistency across company policies. Typically, the format should include: 

  • The correct logo and brand colors. 
  • Policy name and number. 
  • A legal disclaimer in the policy's footer.  

It can help to create a format template to follow for all policies. Whatever format you follow, make sure to incorporate headings and bullets. These elements help the reader skim and easily digest the information.

Step 5: Edit and review for accuracy. 

Once you've written your policy, it's time to edit. 

Edit the substance first. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and ask yourself: is the information accurate? Is it easy to understand? Does the structure make logical sense for the reader? Finally, correct sentence structure and grammar. 

It also helps to get another pair of eyes on the policy. Have your policy team or peers also review for any mistakes and clarity. Ask a subject matter expert to also review if necessary. 

After thoroughly editing the document, submit the final draft to the appropriate manager or supervisor for the final sign-off. 

Policy writing examples

No matter what type of policy you're writing, it can be helpful to review examples. Here are a few that follow best policy writing practices: 

1. MasterCard Code of Conduct

A code of conduct is a policy that outlines expected behavior standards for all employees. MasterCard's code of conduct uses clear visuals, simple language, and a logical structure to present these standards to the company. 

[Source]


2. Intel Environmental, Health, and Safety Policy

This type of policy outlines a company's commitment to meet work health and safety laws. It shows how employees are protected in the workplace.

Intel's environmental, health, and safety policy is neatly formatted with headings and the company colors/logo. The language is simple overall and maps out how the company is adhering to specific principles. 

[Source]

3. Gordon State College Teleworking Policy

As working from home continues to become the norm, companies need to create policies that detail what's acceptable for employees working out of the office.

Simple yet effective, Gordon State College's teleworking policy includes the purpose of the document and clear definitions of eligible employees, positions, office hours, etc.

Hint: Sentences in the policy should include only one space after a period instead of two

[Source]

Strengthen your policy writing skills

Even after your policy is written, don't let it become stagnant. Set up a regular review (e.g., every year or every six months) on your calendar to ensure you don't miss incorporating any new laws or best practices.

Improve your policy process and create an effective policy by enrolling in a technical writing course. At Instructional Solutions, we offer online technical writing courses with comprehensive lessons, exercises, and individualized feedback to help new or experienced policy writers. No matter your policy assignment, Instructional Solutions helps you take an effective technical approach to write and create a successful policy. 

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Elisabeth O'Quinn
Post by Elisabeth O'Quinn
Originally published August 4, 2022, updated August 24, 2022

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