Mastering Procedure Writing: Key Concepts and Guidelines

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Procedures are core to most business writing. Telling people how to book time off or how to set up the product helps people get done what they need to do and get on with their lives. If you’re writing user guides, in-app guides, knowledge base articles, or other content, clear procedure writing is critical.

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Writing procedures can be because it’s challenging to know what goes in each step. The information here should help you know the basics of what and how to write useful and actionable procedures.

What are procedures?

A procedure is a series of numbered steps that takes a reader from the start of a thing they want to do to the end of what they want to do. Each step starts with an action the reader takes and concludes with the result of the action, if needed. For example:

  1. To log in, type your username and password.
  2. Click Log in. Your dashboard opens.

This example is basic with 2 steps to log in. The result of the actions in step 2 are shown after the action, as part of the step. The result allows the reader to check they’re on track and can move forward.

This kind of instruction is what I call task-specific steps.

Overview procedures and task-specific procedures

Overview procedures are a numbered list of the big picture steps. For example, closing out the books at year-end can start with the big picture, or overview steps.

In procedure writing, overview steps are useful in multiple use cases:

  • Complicated process, such as changing the oil in a vehicle.
  • Setting up a new user in the corporate environment.
  • Configuring the email servers.

These are processes the audience either doesn’t do often and needs to be reminded of the process, or are complicated across multiple systems. The overview steps can be read through as reminders of all the parts, or can set the expectations of the overall process. These sorts of procedures are best suited for domain experts.

Task-specific steps are usually a numbered list of the specific steps needed for the task at hand. These steps are typically specific to the system the reader is working in. They can also be the smaller parts of an Overview procedure. The example earlier is a great example of a task-specific procedure.

Task-specific procedures are suited for both domain experts and people who are less the expert in the domain. In procedure writing, you often write both.

Overview procedures

Overview steps can look like this:

  1. Close out the quarter.
  2. Verify all purchase orders have a matching purchase request.
  3. Roll any open expenses to the following quarter.
  4. Let the CFO know of any missing invoices.

(If you are an accounting person, I deeply apologize for these steps. I made them up, and they are probably terribly wrong.)

Notice these are not task-specific, in that they don’t tell you how to close out the quarter or how to match purchase orders to purchase requests. These steps are appropriate for a domain expert who knows how to close out the quarter; they need to be reminded of the order of tasks to do.

Task-specific procedures

Task-specific procedures can look like this:

  1. Open the Purchase request dashboard.
  2. In the upper right, from the Items menu, select Open purchase requests. The open purchase requests appear on your dashboard.
  3. Next to Items menu, select the previous quarter. Now you see the open purchase requests for the previous quarter.
  4. and so on.

(If you are an accounting person, I again deeply apologize for these steps.)

Notice these are very specific and assume the reader has the accounting product in front of them. They are expected to work each step, in order, as they go. Each step starts with one action to take and is followed by a result to tell them what happened, based on what they just did. This helps the reader stay on track.

Notice also I located where the action needs to happen before I tell the reader what to do. This reduces the cognitive load because the information is given to them in the order then need to do it. The reader doesn’t need to flip the information in their head before they can take the action.

Combining both types of procedures

Now that you know about writing each type of procedure, you can think about combining them if that’s right for your audience. For example:

  1. Close out the quarter.
    • In the General Ledger dashboard, in the upper right, select the quarter you want to close. Only the information for that quarter appears on your dashboard.
    • In the lower right, click the Close Quarter button. At the prompt, click OK.
  2. Verify all purchase orders have a matching purchase request.
    • Open the Purchase request dashboard.
    • In the upper right, from the Items menu, select Open purchase requests. The open purchase requests appear on your dashboard.
    • Next to Items menu, select the previous quarter. Now you see the open purchase requests for the previous quarter.
    • and so on.
  3. Roll any open expenses to the following quarter.

Combining these procedure types chunks (structures) the steps into manageable units of steps.

You helped the domain experts because they can read step 1 and then go do it, based on their more expert knowledge. You’ve supported the not-yet experts by telling them the big step and the specific steps they need to take to do the big step. I call this layering the information because you’re supporting both audience groups in one set of procedures.

There’s more to clear procedure writing, definitely, but that’s another blog post.

2 responses to “Mastering Procedure Writing: Key Concepts and Guidelines”

  1. […] a previous post, I covered the basics of good procedures. As you recall, procedures tell people how to do stuff—often the tasks they need to accomplish in […]

  2. […] previous articles, I’ve covered the basics of procedures, how to identify and follow task paths, and how to chunk your procedures to let humans follow them. […]

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