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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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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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29 Ways to Write SOP Procedures Faster


Doing business in China has meant more business analysis, process design, proposal development, case studies and writing standard operating procedures.

As some friends on LinkedIn are also moving into business analysis and SOP writing, I thought I’d add a few tips here. While there is some overlap with technical writing, it does require a different mindset, for example, to understand the process flows and narratives that hold the procedure together.

This purpose of this article is to reminds us that our sales, marketing, business, and proposal development do not stand alone. It is all part of a larger process that involves planning, research, writing, editing, proofing, submission and acceptance.

This list gives 37 ways to improve your next set of procedures.

Scroll through it and tell me what I missed.

  1. Show that your procedure is logical and organized
  2. Make the information easy to find.
  3. Include a table of contents for procedures over 10 pages in length
  4. Ensure that your procedure is in compliance with the Security guidelines.
  5. Arrange material in order of priority to the reader
  6. Arrange everything in the order that’s most important to the client
  7. Arrange the procedure in accordance with the user’s requirements
  8. Number pages and sections consecutively; do not re-number each section
  9. Use headings that make sense to your readers. See Audience Analysis template.
  10. Each section title should stress the main benefits
  11. Each section title should help readers orient themselves
  12. If possible, express the key point of the section in the headline, or immediately after it.
  13. Highlight important points
  14. You can emphasize the most positive points by using bold, underlining, different fonts, spacing, titles, bullets and summaries
  15. Write all action steps. Don’t skip anything.
  16. Avoid banal headings and titles
  17. Rather than say “Development Section,” say “Ten Ways to Improve Your Processes”
  18. Use action verbs in heads, especially verbs that stress a benefit for the client
  19. Avoid boilerplate text.
  20. Avoid hype, padding and other self-congratulatory drivel. Remember that the proposal is a legal document that becomes part of the contract if you win
  21. By giving specific details and quantifying the benefits whenever possible
  22. Don’t just say that you will comply with a requirement — say how we’ll do so
  23. Use a strong closing statement
  24. Avoid business cliché’s
  25. Avoid hackneyed openings and closings that clients have read a thousand times. Avoid “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for considering the enclosed . . .” Get to the point: “Here is your proposal.” Avoid “If you have any questions, please feel free to call.” That closing has been done to death, so avoid it and write something more genuine.
  26. Make your procedure easy to understand
  27. Use the same terms and jargon that appear in all SOPs. Don’t try to impress the client with your own special brand of buzzwords or TLA (three-letter acronyms)
  28. Use simple, direct language
  29. Close your business documents on a high note. Don’t be too humble. A little confidence never hurt!

What did I miss?

About the Author: Ivan Walsh is a Beijing-based business writer. He shares business writing tips for smart people at Klariti