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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.

Or

  • 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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FAQ Procedure Writing: Should you write Okay or OK?

In this procedure writing course, we look at different ways to improve your SOPs, processes, and instructions materials, so you have a consistent and effective writing style. Sometimes, it’s the small things that make a difference. And a good example of this is when to do with OK, Ok, and Okay. Which one should you use when writing procedures?

Something to consider is that each has it’s own place. The more you write procedures, the more you’ll understand when and where to apply these.

Writing Procedures: Okay v OK

  • Use okay to mean all right. You can avoid any potential confusion by using all right instead and omitting Okay, which may sound too informal, especially in business documents.
  • Use OK in relation to the user interface, for example, the OK button.

Note: do not use the and button when documenting the OK button in procedures.

  • Correct – In the Print window, click OK.
  • Incorrect – In the Print window, click the OK button. It’s fine to just say OK.
 Note: you don’t need to include “Click OK” at the end of a procedure if it’s obvious to the reader that they must click OK to complete it.
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Why Short Procedures Work Best… sometimes

If you are new to writing procedures there can be a temptation to dress up the language of the SOP to disguise your lack of experience or make the procedure sound more ‘professional’.

The opposite usually happens. The procedure sounds stiff, doesn’t flow, and is often unreadable. Instead, use short words, keep to the point, and help the reader understand the procedure as quickly as possible. In addition, avoid using jargon or industry speak that will confuse reader. And remember that are not everyone reading your procedure is not a native English speaker avoid using phrases or figures of speech that will trip people up. Aim for simplicity.

  1. Long v Short words – if you have a choice, use short monosyllable words rather than more complex, impressive sounding words. For example, use ‘get’ instead of ‘procure’. The meaning is that same.
  2. Redundant phrases – if you change phrases such as ‘in the event of’ and use ‘if’, the meaning remains the same. Other fillers include ‘at this point in time’, which can usually be deleted and have no impact on the integrity of the procedure.
  3. Fillers – phrases such as just now, simply click, and due to the fact that, can be changed to now, click, and because without changing the meaning of the text. Look for fillers like these in your text and also legacy materials that need to be updated.
  4. You v User – this may depend on your in-house style guide, but it’s worth considering how you address the reader. If you use ‘you’ when talking to the reader, it creates a more immediate impact. However, if you overdo it, it can sound too informal and chatty. Likewise, if you refer to ‘the user’ all the time, it can sound harsh and cold. After all, the reader is the user. Referring to the reader in the third person tends to distance them from you, the writer. So, before you start, consider the tone and phrasing you want to adopt. Then be consistent across all documents.

What’s important here is not whether the procedure is long or short. Instead, look for ways to explain how the procedure works as clearly as possible. In most cases, this means using simple, direct, and concise language. Get past trying to impress the reader – or your boss – and zero in on the task.

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10 Step Plan For Writing Standard Operating Procedures

This week we start a series of articles on how to write Standard Operating Procedures (also called SOPs). The aim is to introduce the key concepts involved in:

  • Designing
  • Writing
  • Formatting
  • Testing and
  • Maintaining Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

These tutorials will look at how you can put together a team of writers who can write procedures to an acceptable level so that your company is better organised, both internally and customer-facing.

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

Is it for experts of beginners?

We’ll start with the fundamentals and then work our way up to more complicated areas. For example, we’ll look at how to get funding for your project, how to write technical writers and how to use naming conventions so that you can find document more easily once they have been archived.

10 Step Plan to Writing Standard Operating Procedures

The process of developing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) involves ten steps.

The approach we will use is to assume that you are starting from scratch and want to develop your SOPs in a structured manner. This means that along with writing the SOPs, you will also have them written in a way that allows others to find them, update them and share them where necessary.

  • Organise the Procedure Writing Team
  • Get Support from Management
  • Define Team Procedures, Templates and Style Guides
  • Information Gathering Phase
  • Examine As-Is Processes
  • Explore To Be Processes
  • Write the Standard Operating Procedures
  • Test the Standard Operating Procedures
  • Sign-Off the Standard Operating Procedures
  • Release the SOPs
  • Maintain the SOPs

How about Style Guides and Templates?

We will also look at how to setup style guide, templates, and adopt naming conventions for all procedures.

What else will the course include?

Some of the other topics will include:

  • Role and Function of SOPs
  • How to conduct a Needs Assessment
  • How to implement SOPs
  • How to Evaluate SOPs
  • How to create SOP templates
  • How to format SOPs, Process, and Flowcharts
  • How to define a SOP

At the end of the course, we’ll share some free sample SOPs and other resources that will help you write your procedures.

That’s it for now.

From tomorrow, we will begin to walk you through the entire process and look at each step involved in creating your procedures.