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Procedure Writing: How to Write the Narrative Section

Use the following checklist to write the narrative section in standard operating procedures.

Essentially, there are three things to be aware of:

1. The numbering of the steps

2. The description of the actions

3. The accuracy of the steps and actions in relation to the diagram.

Later, we’ll look at how to write the actual procedure. But, for now, let’s agree on some guidelines for documenting the narrative. The narrative is the text which accompanies the process flow diagram.

1. Start at Step 0. Identify the first step in the procedure, which is the formal starting point in the procedure. Identifying Start as 0 is the simplest way to capture it.

2. For the steps, use a X.x numbering convention for the steps. This allows you to group actions under the same number and avoid having a very lengthy number list. So, for example, go from 1.0, 1.1 etc, to 5.0, 5.1 etc instead of going up to 25.

3. For the actions, use the active voice.

4. State who does what.

5. Write the actions starting with a verb. For example, Step 2: Print page. Step 3: Save page. Here Print and Save are the verbs. This type of phrasing works as it identifies immediately what to do at each step.

6. Be as concise as possible. Remove filler text but make sure, in your enthusiasm, you don’t delete any necessary information.

7. If possible, distill the description into a single sentence. If this is not possible, identify the most important action first, then add additional text to explain, clarify or warn the reader of something they should be aware of.

8. Describe one action in each step. This helps the reader see, at a glance, what occurs at each step. It also helps them check against the diagram.

9. Avoid the temptation to merge multiple actions into a single step.

10. Be consistent in the Yes No order. If 2.1 is Yes, then in 3.1, use Yes. Don’t change the sequence as this breaks the rhythm of the procedure.

11. When adding Yes and No to the lines, put them slightly above the line not in it. Placing the text on the line make it more difficult to read.

12. Where possible use straight lines.

13. Make arrow heads connect to the target shape. Don’t let it hang.

14. Make arrow heads straight.

15. Use consistent colors for your shapes.

16. Remove filler text from descriptions.

17. Identify the final step as the End.

18. If necessary, add a third column to your table. Use this to identify the product or system which performs the action. If tasks are performed by more than one actor, for example, some by a person, some by a CRM system, and others by database, then consider identifying the actor in its own column instead of describing it in the Action column.

19. Check the procedure by starting at the end and working up to the start.

20. Print out the process flow diagram and identify each step. If necessary, use a pen and draw a circle around each step. This ensures that you check each activity on the diagram. If you’ve missed something, you’ll see it immediately.

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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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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).

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

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.
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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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SOP Writing – How Much Detail Is Required?

How much information do you need to include in your SOP? One of the dilemmas for procedure writing is working out what level of detail is required when creating SOPs (standard operating procedures).

  • Too little and the user can’t perform their tasks correctly.
  • Too much and the documents seem so dense that nobody wants to use them.

How do you get the right balance?

The golden rule is to give readers… the appropriate level of detail.

This means you need to outline the procedure in sufficient detail for the user to perform their tasks but not overwhelm them with superfluous information or text that distracts them from their objective.

Why Less is More in procedure writing

When I’m working with clients – for example refining an existing set of procedures – I ‘warn’ them that the final document will be shorter, not longer, than what they have today.


Because I distill the instructions, merge action steps and remove redundancies. The end result is a short, more useful SOP Manual.

SOP Writing Guidelines

What’s our aim?

To write procedures to a level of detail that aligns with the user’s qualifications and training.

How do you find this?

Use task analysis techniques to assess the level of information required.

You may also find that you need to write for several, not one, audiences. If this is the case, consider creating entry level and advanced procedure manuals.

Note: When in doubt, write to the lowest common denominator.

To provide the correct level of detail, examine the following:

  • Task Complexity – The level of detail increases as task complexity increases. In other words, as the task gets more complex, you need to provide additional information to explain how this part works.
  • Frequency – The level of detail decreases as task frequency increases, i.e. as the user becomes more experienced they don’t need to be reminded of the basics all the time.
  • Proficiency – The level of detail decreases as the user’s level of proficiency increases.

Next, examine if the amount and type of information provided are adequate for
intended users. For example:

  • Sequence – Can the procedure be performed in the sequence it is written? If not, write more action steps.
  • Equipment – Can the user find the equipment referred to in the procedure? Monitor a user when testing the SOP and see if they can perform this unaided.
  • Understanding – Can the user explain how to perform the instructions? Interview the user and ask them to explain how the process works without referring to the document all the time.
  • Independent – Can the user perform the procedure without getting help from other individuals or looking at other documents? If they have to ask for assistance, then identify where they’re getting confused and expand this section. Sometimes a process flow diagram is very helpful.


Your goal is to ensure that users have enough information to complete the procedure… without asking for help or looking at another document.

If they have to do that, then you’ve under-written the document or possibly assumed that the reader would be able to perform these steps.

One of the challenges for procedure writers is to determine the user’s skill-sets, experience and knowledge of the system. If it’s hard to determine this, then err on the side of caution and prove steps for all level of users.