How can you write procedures so that readers can perform the task correctly, the first time and every time?
Most procedure writers make the mistake of adding too much information, and cluttering up the text, or leaving critical information out, so the reader can not perform the task. In this tutorial, let’s look at how to reduce the word count and refine the text.
- Write directly. Speak to the person reading the procedure. You don’t need to the ‘the user’ all the time. The reader is the user.
- Reduce verbose text.
When I first started on this article, I wrote:
Procedures need to be written in such a way that the reader can follow the task.
Then I changed it from passive to active phrasing. Here’s what you get:
Write your procedures so readers can perform tasks correctly.
Remember, this type of phrasing doesn’t suit all types of procedures but keep it in mind. You don’t have to slavishly write in the passive voice. If appropriate, use the active voice. The word count shrinks immediately.
Procedure Writing Guidelines
Here are five practical ways you can improve your procedure documents.
#1 Use bullets or text blocks
Instead of writing large blocks of explanatory text, distill the information into short bullet points. If you cannot boil down the text to a series or bullets, i.e. highlight the key points, you may need to step back and gain a better understanding of the task.
#2 Use informative headings
In general, most procedures will have heading for pre-requisites, how to perform the task, and next steps. Use these to orient the reader and reduce ‘bridging’ text between sections.
#3 Avoid redundant lead sentences
Lead sentences introduce the procedure. Most are redundant. Examples of lead sentences are:
[heading] Printing the page
[lead sentence] To print the page, follow these steps:
[procedure] Step 1. Click this button to do this.
In this example, the lead sentence adds no value. The reader will typically skims over this and go straight to the first step. So, if they’re ignoring this text, what’s the justification in keeping it?
However, if you need to provide explanatory information in advance, such as a warning or recommendation, then include it here. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify.
#4 Merge steps
For example, if you have three steps as follows:
- Click the Print button.
- Click the Yes button.
- Click the Ok button.
You could merge this into one line.
- Click the Print button, Yes button, then the Ok button.
- Click Print, Yes, then Ok.
Most users will get this.
#5 Condense Information
Shorten the text but make sure nothing is lost.
- Cross-reference. If writing online procedures, for example for a Help system, consider linking to support information instead of embedding it in the procedure. This streamlines the text. Users who need more information, can find it on the related pages.
- Introductory text. Orient the reader but avoid starting the obvious and repeating yourself. Instead, provide business rich information, for example, the benefit of performing this procedure and where it is performed. Keep this short. Focus on benefits to the reader.
- Remove clutter. Avoid using marketing terms and clichés, such as easy-to-use, intuitive, and robust. Focus on specifics. What will the user learn to do if they perform this procedure? Remove jargon and industry terms. Mostly these can be deleted without impacting the integrity of the procedure.
- Use short words. It’s fine to say get instead of procure, to say fix instead of resolve, and end instead of terminate. Quite often we default to words with Greek or Latin origins to give the text more gravity. The reader doesn’t care. They simply want to know how to perform the task and move on.
- Use white space. This may not reduce the word count, but try to lay out the text so it flows, helps the reader identify the key points, and can scan quicker.
- Write to be scanned. With more information going online, and with more information read on mobile devices, write to be scanned. Your readers may not be printing out pages anymore but logging into a Help site and using keywords to find a specific issue. Once they find it, they scan the page looking for the answer. With this in mind, use headings, keywords, bullet lists, and short words.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to good procedure writing. Use this checklist as a reference and adapt each item to your materials. Any questions, drop me a line.