Procedure Writing: How to Create ‘Action’ Steps

Action steps are the individual steps performed in a procedure. Most procedures are performed in a sequence, however, you also need to consider other factors, such as multiple choices when performing a task, its secondary tasks, and other related procedures. To round off the procedure, it helps to put it in context – where does this occur in the larger scheme of things – and also things the user should do before getting started (prerequisites) and warnings (things to avoid or). 

Procedures: How to Create Action Steps

  • Summary sentence – open the procedure with a short summary sentence that explains what performing the procedure will achieve. This helps orient the reader, so they know at a glance if they’re on the right page. For this reason, keep it short, concise, and avoid waffle. 
  • Main task – Identify the main task in the procedure heading. This defines the starting point for the procedure and should usually be written using a gerund, a verb that ends in ING, for example, printing, deleting, changing and so on.
  • Sequence – Write the procedures in the sequence in which they should be performed. Number each step. 
  • Sub Steps – If the procedure offers that user a series of options, then, instead of continuing with the numbering, create sub steps, for example, 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3. This helps the reader see these steps occur under the 7 step. Indenting the sub-steps highlights this.  
  • Secondary tasks – Identify secondary tasks, for example, tasks they need to be performed either in parallel with the main task, or if the procedure is rather complex, a second series of steps. This clarifies to the reader that the procedure is really two parts, and prepares them for what’s coming up. 
  • Prerequisites – what should they do before they start? Is there another procedure that should be performed first? Is there a setting that should be turned on? Don’t assume the reader knows everything about the product they’re using. Instead, help them by highlighting the type of issues they are likely to encounter so they can perform the procedure without having to stop and start.
  • Warnings – similar to above except these highlights potential risks (e.g. you may lose data if you do X), security, or physical risks, for example, if the user is using dangerous equipment, is there some risk they should be aware of? Highlight these and use icons – small warning images – to make them stand out from the text.
  • Related Information – procedures are not islands that stand alone. Instead, they are usually part of something larger, usually a set of procedures. For that reason, at the end of your procedure, create a For More Information section and list all related procedures. Use the same phrasing and be as specific as possible. 

What else would you add?