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How to Write Shorter (SOP) Procedures (with 5 examples)

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.

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

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.

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SOP Procedures: 5 Ways to Orient Readers

What do we mean by the location in procedures? It’s WHERE the user performs the actual task. Inexperienced procedure writers often assumes the reader will know where to perform the action. But this is not always the case. Often readers are starting cold. How can you fix this?

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

Procedure writers need to put themselves in the reader’s shoes, for example:

  1. Location – identify where in the application the procedure is performed, for example, [this task] is performed  on this [tab] on [this] window.
  2. Prerequisites – highlight if it’s necessary to perform any tasks, for example, selecting a checkbox on another window in order to make another window appear. Another consideration is if this window needs to be specified in a configuration file or selected from a menu bar if it’s not displayed out of the box.
  3. Location in user interface – identify where in the application the task is performed. Provide directions to the exact location where the procedure is performed, for example, if the window contains several panes, then highlight either with a graphic or state the name of the pane. Likewise, if the window has tabs, highlight which tab to use.  Use the same convention to define the location path in other procedures.
  4. Position in Procedure – decide to add these directions, for example, directly after the first lead paragraph, so the reader can identify the location immediately. Remove any frustration for the user by orienting them in the application. This helps them perform the procedure without having to go to other pages to determine the location.
  5. Links – if linking to the page, for example, in online help, use the same phrasing in your links. Instead of saying Click Here, provide more useful information, for example, to create a report, see the Report window, and then link Report window to the appropriate page.

What else would you add?

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SOP Procedures: 5 Ways to Improve the Title

Recently, we looked at how much detail is required when writing procedures. Let’s look at the title section of your procedure.
As this is the first piece of content the reader encounters, so it’s important to give it some thought.  You want to make sure it’s accurate but also effective. For example, how long should it be? How do you phrase the procedures? Let’s take a look.

Procedure Titles: 5 Ways to Improve

  1. Highlight the main task – for example, if you’re describing the different ways you can print something, start with Print as this is the main activity.
  2. Identify related tasks – for example, list the different ways you can print a document. Then, once these are identified, you can group them. This helps the reader see the different options available to them. If publishing the procedures online, remember to cross link from one procedure to another.
  3. Start with a gerund – for example, write Printing the Report in Landscape. A gerund is a verb that ends with ING. So, printing, deleting, copying, updating etc .Don’t start with nouns, such as Portrait or Landscape as readers don’t think like this. They tend to scan for the action to perform and then which option they need.
  4. Short but not too short – personally, I try to keep procedure headlines between 5-7 words. In some cases, you need to add more words, but I find I can usually distill the procedure into less than ten words most time. Saying that, don’t shorten the title if more words are necessary. Use your judgment. If necessary, add more words but – in principle – try to keep them short.
  5. Scannable – when we’re in a hurry, we scan for information. We look for keywords and phrases that match what we’re thinking of. For that reason, write your title so that readers can scan the title and decide it this is relevant or not. If not, they’ll continue to scan. If that fails, they’ll turn to the Index. Remember him?
They are exceptions of course and cultural preferences need to be factored in.
Note that you can add options such as Portrait and Landscape into your Index. This is where many readers will go when they get lost or don’t know where to start.
So, keep a list of items for your Index and link these – if publishing online – to each related topic page.
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SOP Document Layout: 6 Screenshot Mistakes to Avoid

Should I add screenshots to my procedures? It depends for several reasons.

For example, when writing SOPs, I prefer to add a high res process diagram at the end of the procedure. This shows it connections to other procedures and exchanges between actors. However, sometimes it helps to include a procedure in the procedure if, at that specific steps, the user needs a visual cue to help them understand how to progress.

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

Screenshots Guidelines for SOP Procedures

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Use Two Column Tables – instead of embedded a screenshot after each step, consider using a two column table. In the left column, put the text; in the right, the screenshot. This helps the reader check the procedure as they scan it. It also allows them to ignore the screenshot if they wish. This also works for process design.
  • Label the images – add the name of the window under the screenshot. This helps the reader confirm that they’re in the right place. Should I be on the Print Options window? Looks at image. Yes, I’m in the right place. And then they continue reading.
  • Highlight actions – another way to improve your procedures is to highlight, for example, using a red rectangle, the affected area on the user interface. This is helpful if there are many options on the screen and it may not be obvious where a button needs to be clicked or a field populated.
  • Crop the image – if the image if very large, instead of showing the entire window, crop it using a tool such as Snagit. This helps the user see exactly where the action occurs. It also gives them confidence in the procedure as they can match what’s in the text with what’s displayed on the image.
  • Screenshot format – make sure all members of your team use the same style guidelines and formatting techniques. For example, use 1 pixel red rectangles, not blue circles. Avoid special effect unless you wanted, for example, jagged edges.
  • Online procedures – instead of displaying the image in the middle of the procedure, where it may distract the reader, consider using a popup link. The way this works is that when the user clicks the link, the image pops up. When you click on it again, the image disappears. This is ideal for procedures that have several images, which if displayed by default, would clutter up the page.

When to avoid:

  • If the procedure is straightforward, and you’re relatively sure the reader will know where to perform the task, then it’s fine not to add an image.
  • If the procedure is one of a series, and screenshots are displayed in other related procedures, then it may not be necessary.
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5 Procedure Writing Guidelines (with sample template)

Want to improve your procedure writing? Today we look at five simple ways to sharpen your SOPs. Let’s look at five terms frequently used in procedure manuals, instructional guides, and process design.

5 Procedure Writing Guidelines

In procedures, the following five words are often used incorrectly. To avoid these mistakes, do as follows”

  • Button Names – avoid using the, button name, or icon name. Write “Click Print.” Instead of “Click the Print button.”
  • Turn on/off – use ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off’ when activating or deactivating a command. Use Click to turn something on or off, for example: To turn on Web view, click Web.
  • Click OK – don’t write “Click OK” at the end of a procedure if it’s obvious that you must click OK to complete it.
  • When to use From – if your procedures refer to a keyboard, use ‘from’ to highlight the menu from where you can choose a command. For example, say “From the File menu, choose Print.”
  • When to use On – use ‘on’ to highlight where the command or option starts: “On the File menu, click Print.”

What other terms or phrases are often written incorrectly in procedures? Let me know and we’ll discuss it in a future blog post.

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages