How to Improve Your Procedure Writing

Elisabeth O'Quinn
Post by Elisabeth O'Quinn
Originally published November 29, 2022, updated December 19, 2022
How to Improve Your Procedure Writing

Procedures are necessary documents to ensure that policies are followed and that organizational tasks run smoothly.

As a technical writer, here's how to improve your procedure writing, become a stronger procedure writer overall, and ensure that even the most complicated procedures are clear to your readers. 

What is a procedure?

A procedure is a technical document that describes, step by step, what actions to take in specific instances.

Policies and procedures go hand-in-hand but are not the same thing. Policies generally tell readers what to do and why it's done, while procedures tell people how to do it. Here are a few more facts about procedures:

  • Continuously change and improve
  • State what, how, when, or who.
  • Offer a detailed description of activities.

Whether formal or informal procedures, these documents should be strictly followed to achieve the desired outcome. A procedure's cyclical nature and uniformity are vitally important for training new employees, compliance, process improvement, and auditing.

Common examples of procedural topics include emergency procedures, material ordering, equipment operation, how to inventory supplies and goods, how to take attendance each day, and how to assemble products.

One good example of an emergency procedure is a fire drill. The fire drill procedure states where each classroom should go in the case of a fire drill, noting specific routes and offering alternatives. As the drills are practiced, the procedure will likely change and improve. 

business-writing-course-online-at-computer-screen

Practice your technical procedure writing and get instructor feedback on your actual technical writing.

Learn More About the Course

Why is procedural text writing important?

Clear procedures ensure that employees behave in specific ways, holding them accountable. Tasks are consistently carried out according to policy. They also help reduce errors and ensure compliance. New and experienced team members alike follow the same standards and detailed steps, allowing departments and businesses achieve key objectives. 

Procedure writing tips

Below is a list of steps to follow when writing a procedure. 

1. Follow a structured writing process

Never jump straight into drafting with procedure writing. You'll end up spending more time editing in the end. Instead, start by planning.

First, analyze your audience. Determine who your reader(s) is. Also, think about the purpose of the document. Why are you writing the procedure? What do you want the reader to know or do? 

Next, generate content ideas. Maybe you already know what complex steps and detailed instructions need to be included. Write them down. Or perhaps you need to do more research. Interview team members to determine necessary tasks or basic steps.

Organize all of this info into an outline or concept map (an excellent visual way to organize complex ideas). Categorize and sequence the information. Place "like content with like content." Also, create headings that briefly summarize the contents of each section.

Ensure that the sequence of ideas makes logical sense for the reader. Here's an example of how your procedures sequence might look

  • Title page
  • Publication/revision date
  • Introduction/purpose
  • Definitions
  •  Step-by-step instructions

Only after all this planning is in place should you start drafting. Drafting should actually be the easy, creative part here -- you've already completed the challenging, analytical part! Edit as a final step. 

Note: Maybe you have a template you can use for your procedures. Templates are great time savers but remember that your writing process should always precede template use. Let the process guide the template. 

2. Get team input

Connect with team members who can help guide the steps in your procedure. Choose internal experts. For example, if you're writing a restaurant's Standard Operating Procedure, you might ask for input from

  • Head chef
  • Customer host or hostess
  • Server

Next, send an email requesting feedback or set up a formal call or meeting. Show the team the outline or concept map you created (MindMeister can be a great concept mapping tool because it allows for collaboration). Ask for feedback on the steps you've outlined and if you've covered all necessary tasks (involving team members also provides a sense of ownership with the document). Also, make a list of any necessary resources and tools to include in the procedure doc.

3. Choose a format 

Decide the best format for your document and how you will present the info. For example, you might choose a checklist or a hierarchical steps format with detailed instructions. Make sure whatever format you choose matches your organization's branding guidelines and preferences. It can help to review current procedures.

Also, consider where the information will live. Will your procedure doc be a PDF in a resource library? Or as a webpage on your organization's internal site? You might choose to format it in a Google doc so the information can be easily updated and transferred to the proper location. 

However you decide to present the info, format the document to make it easy for your reader to absorb and scan. Here are a few tips for formatting effective procedures:

  • Incorporate adequate white space
  • Use shorter paragraphs — no longer than seven lines
  • Add headings — the natural antidote to information overload
  • Judiciously use bold, italics, and colored text
  • Ensure graphics are formatted correctly, don't need extra explanation, and aren't redundant

Graphics and tables are powerful tools in procedure writing. However, a poorly used graphic will confuse readers and hinder your message. Make sure any graphics, tables, or text are easy to read (e.g., no blurry pictures). They should also integrate with the narrative.

A good rule of thumb is to also avoid irrelevant decoration. 

A decoration is defined as a graphic that seems to have a vague relationship to the subject of the given article but is actually content-free – it adds absolutely nothing to the reader’s understanding of the subject at hand. For example, in an article discussing the job description of a software developer, an illustration taken from a free image website, would be considered a decoration.

4. Ensure that what you write aligns with policies

As you're planning your procedural doc, make 100% sure that all procedural documents align with organizational policies. When you find it difficult to draft clear and well-written procedures because they conflict with existing policies, that's likely a sign you need to revisit the policies. 

5. Edit, edit, edit

With your draft in place, start by editing the substance or content of the procedure. Ask yourself: will the steps make sense for the reader? Is more context needed? Is everything categorized and sequenced logically?

If the substance checks out, edit your procedure doc on a sentence level. Here are a few ways to hone the clarity of your document:

  •  Use active voice over passive
  • Eliminate any jargon
  • Use short words to enhance clarity
  • Write in a neutral tone
  • Avoid gendered and insensitive language

Also, edit for grammar. We always recommend using a grammar check, such as Grammarly. This tool helps make sure that you don't have any careless errors, especially in important documents. Enhance understanding and ensure you're not losing any points for professionalism.

6. Test the procedure (revise if needed)

Testing the procedure is vital to ensure you haven't missed anything. Allow team members to follow the procedure and ask for feedback. Identify any problems, such as missing steps, and revise procedures if needed. Deploy when you're certain that all steps are clear. 

Also, remember that a procedure is a living document. Keep your procedure document up to date by reviewing and potentially revising it at least once per year (ensure that it still meets the policy requirements).

Procedure examples

1. Restaurant SOP 

Standard operation procedures (SOPs) encompass the various procedures required for a well-run organization. SOPs compile all of the necessary individual procedures that are necessary for smooth operation.

Restaurant standard operating procedures (SOPs) are written lists of rules, standards, and norms describing how to complete routine tasks. They help streamline operational and managerial processes at a restaurant. These procedures could include everything from the preparation of food in a hygienic way, maintenance of the restaurant, billing and making payments easy for the customers, and so on.

Here's a snapshot of a restaurant's SOP section:

Food Preparation And Handling:

a) Standard Recipes and Food Preparation Methods

This section of a restaurant's SOP would contain the basic guidelines and protocol to prevent your customers from getting a food-borne disease or any other illness due to spoilt food. The preparation protocol indicates the rules for particular dishes as well. Let’s take soup, for example. Some restaurants have a strict policy of cooling a soup to around 135 degrees F before serving it.

This section would also specify guidelines for different employees who handle food. The SOPs for a bartender will vary from those for the head chef.

b) Food Presentation

The service standards of casual dining, a retro bar, and a fine dining restaurant will all be different. A restaurant needs to be able to define these standards to work the most efficiently. A restaurant SOP should contain all the how-to’s and why’s of the first-line staff of the restaurant.

c) Food Storage

A restaurant needs to be able to store its food and maintain a proper inventory. This would require adequate training for your staff to minimize wastage. A detailed set of instructions would help with how a restaurant wants to store its food. Add the minute details about the quality and quantity of the food that you save.

Other restaurant SOP sections could include customer service standards (e.g., customer complaint management) and equipment handlings, such as health and hygiene regulations and safety. A standard procedure like this one helps makes it easy to replicate the process, in the same way, every time.

2. Operation SOP

The following SOP is for the Central Fire Protection District of Santa Cruz Counties' personnel operating vehicles. The four-page doc outlines how to properly use these vehicles to enforce safety laws and the safety of the drivers.

Key sections include:

a) Title

The SOP's title is "Seat Belt Usage." We'd recommend including a more descriptive, specific title (e.g., Required Seat Belt Usage for Personnel Operating Vehicles). 

b) Scope

The SOP includes a brief overview of who the document applies to at the top, so the reader knows what to expect before reading.

c) Purpose

This section clearly summarizes why the document was written and why following proper seat belt usage is important, including persuasive facts about vehicle collisions and deaths. 

d) Definitions

All definitions related to seat belt usage are included. One example is the Law and Statutes enforcing the use of seat belts, such as the California Vehicle Code Section 27315. 

e) Responsibilities

Readers can review this section to know who is responsible for proper seat belt usage. Those responsible include the Shift Battalion Chief, Driver, Officer, and Members.

f) Procedures

Detailed steps about seat belt usage are presented to ensure that there are no gray areas about when a seat belt should be used. For example: "No person shall operate a District vehicle in which the seat belt in the drivers' position is inoperable."

Note: The information in this SOP could also get confusing and dense, but the writer incorporated clear headings and white space through the use of bulleted lists and paragraphs to create digestible content.

Continually polish your procedure writing 

Procedure writing is 50% planning. Make sure you complete the analytical work first (i.e., analyze your audience, generate content, categorize and sequence info) before you start writing. Also, involve the team in the document's creation. This will ensure a clear, understandable document with detailed instructions that helps operations run smoothly.

Need more help as a procedure writer? Consider enrolling in Instructional Solutions' online Technical Writing Course. In addition to writing excellent procedures, you'll learn how to write technical reports and more! You'll also receive constructive feedback from our expert team of instructions on technical writing assignments. Access online resources, videos, and quizzes to enhance your understanding of concepts. Learn more here. 
 

closeup-woman-writing-business-at-work

Become a stronger technical report writer and advance your career.

Enroll in our online, self-paced course and get detailed feedback on your actual writing.

Download the Outline

 

Elisabeth O'Quinn
Post by Elisabeth O'Quinn
Originally published November 29, 2022, updated December 19, 2022

Guide-to-Business-Writing-CTA

Guide-to-Technical-Writing-CTA