How to Write a Procedure in 8 Simple Steps

 
Apollo 11 launch

My Birthday Candle at Age 14 – Apollo 11 Launch, July 16, 1969. Procedures required.

I am a technical writer. Most technical writing comes down to documenting procedures. Many technical documents are complex, yet most are collections of relatively simple procedures. The art in technical writing is breaking everything into easily-digestible steps. Yesterday was my 60th birthday and — while I’ve only formally been a tech writer for only four years (before that my job title was software systems engineer) — I have been writing procedures since my early teens, over 45 years.

Those early procedures were wargames rules or how-to instructions (often excruciatingly bad). They were as much procedures as desk instructions on using the Navigation Console at JSC’s Mission Evaluation Room or a user guide which app developers read to use an Independent Development Environment.

Procedures are everywhere. Cookbook recipes are procedures. So are model-making how-tos. So are any set of instructions. Mowing the lawn?  That can be defined in a procedure. Changing the seal on your toilet? You want a procedure to tell you how to do that. Driving to a previously unvisited destination?  Driving directions are a procedure.

The world needs well-written procedures. Writing good procedures is not difficult, if you know how. So, if I am going to write a how-to, why not a how-to on how to write a procedure?

Here goes:

1. Define the procedure you are going to write down. Sound stupid? Not really. Most procedures are badly written because they are poorly defined. “Wash a car” is different than “wash and detail a car.” “Using Microsoft Word” is different from “insert and resize a picture in an MS Word document.” Start by framing exactly what you want the procedure to do.

Pro tip: Keep procedures simple. A procedure to use Word really is a collection of procedures to do different things in Word. (Start Word, Create a Word document, Insert a picture in a Word document, etc.)

2. Create a list of everything you need to complete the procedure. Everything. Every utensil and ingredient for a recipe. All materials and tools for a hobby project. Every element needed for a set of software instructions. You may not necessarily include the full list in your procedure, but you need to know what it includes.

Pro Tip: One magazine I wrote for has writers organize their “How To” piece into “Gather” and “Go” sections. “Gather” was the list of stuff you needed and “Go” was how to use them. I liked the idea so much, I use it every time I create a procedure to create the procedure, even if I do not write the procedure up into Gather and Go sections.

3. Execute the procedure and note the steps you take and the order in which you do them. Jot down everything you do. Record the flow of things. Note tools used and when. Note dependencies – things that have to be done before something else. Also note what stuff does not have to be done in any particular order. Take pictures or screenshots as you go.

Pro Tip: You will be amazed at the number of things you forget when you write down the steps from memory. Going through the process exposes these omissions, so you can include these otherwise forgotten steps.

4. Organize the steps you recorded in a logical sequence. Start at the beginning. Continue to the end. Sort the dependencies, so tasks which must be completed before a later task can be finished are done first. Fit the independent tasks – the ones which must be completed, but not in any particular order – so they do not interrupt the flow. (If you have twelve items requiring painting before final assembly, which can be painted at any time before assembly, group them together, to avoid repetitively bringing out the paint can and cleaning brushes.)

Pro Tip: No section of a procedure should have more than eight steps. People get confused and lose focus with a long procedure. What if you need more than eight steps? Break the procedure into up to eight sections with up to eight steps in each section. This provides 64 steps to play with. If that is not enough, create subsections with the steps within the eight sections. If 512 steps are not enough, your procedure is likely too complex.

5. Examine your outline. See where you can optimize the sequence of steps. Are there places where you are looping back and repeating work unnecessarily? Is the flow logical? Do the steps outlined require unnecessary effort? (In baking a cake to you go to the pantry several times to get separate ingredients? In building a box do you go from one end of your workbench to the other repeatedly?) Rearrange the steps to minimize movement and effort.

Pro Tip: This is where the tech writers really earn their pay. Bad procedures documents are poorly organized and poorly optimized more often than that they are poorly written. Get it organized logically and set it up to minimize wasted effort.

6. Write the procedure. Take the steps you outlined and put them on paper. A picture really is worth 1000 words in providing clarity; add images as necessary to explain the process. If you did your job in steps 1 through 5, the words should flow.

Pro Tip: Use declarative statements and active voice. Remove unnecessary words. Be direct. Write “Mix ingredients thoroughly,” not “The ingredients are to be thoroughly mixed at this stage of the process.”

7. Test the procedure. Give it to someone completely unfamiliar with the process outlined in the procedure and have them follow the instructions. Do not help the person. Once they use the procedure, get their feedback. Find what was confusing and unclear. Learn where gaps are and what you assumed they would know that they did not know.

Pro Tip: Every organization has a slow performer. Use that individual to test the procedure. If Slow Joe understands the procedure, the star performers will pick it up with no problems.

8. Rewrite. Take the feedback from your victims procedures testers and fix any deficiencies found. Repeat steps 1 through 6, redefining the procedure as necessary, adding the missing materials and steps, reorganize and re-optimize the steps or structure as necessary, and create a new draft of your procedure. Find another set of sucker-testers to test the revised procedure. Redo until exhaustion sets in, deadlines are reached, or you converge on a solution – write something which works the first time someone goes through it.

One thing you may notice: Actually writing the procedure seems like a minor part of the whole process. That is because the secret to writing a procedure is the preparation done before writing it. Step 1 (Define the procedure) may seem obvious and trivial, but it is like laying the foundation for a building. If the foundation is bad, the building will be inadequate, no matter how much effort goes into the rest of the construction.

Published in Culture
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 35 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    I work in a world so procedurally driven I’m surprised the toilet paper isn’t printed with instructions. Please come to my place of employment and explain to the engineers and tech writers that they lack the competence for #3. For technical work, a technician must be part of the process.

    Pro Tip: If you’re never seen the equipment or the process you cannot write an adequate procedure for its use.

    • #1
  2. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Happy Birthday! (And – bookmarked.)

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    The King Prawn:I work in a word so procedurally driven I’m surprised the toilet paper isn’t printed with instructions. Please come to my place of employment and explain to the engineers and tech writers that they lack the competence for #3. For technical work, a technician must be part of the process.

    Pro Tip: If you’re never seen the equipment or the process you cannot write an adequate procedure for its use.

    I am dead serious when I say you have to do the process as part of documenting it. If I am documenting a procedure I have the technicians walk me through the process, including actually sitting in the chair they use and exercising the equipment. (Though generally on a simulator.)

    One job I interviewed for was writing maintenance procedures for wind turbines. And I was expected to climb the turbine (300 feet high) as part of my work documenting the procedures.  Rightfully so.

    Seawriter

    • #3
  4. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Here they write procedures, then we do table top exercises with them — green lining a lot of stuff — then slow run throughs with them making more edits.

    • #4
  5. Penfold Member
    Penfold
    @Penfold

    Pro Tip: Every organization has a slow performer. Use that individual to test the procedure. If Slow Joe understands the procedure, the star performers will pick it up with no problems.

    Judging and tailoring your procedure to the intended audience can be a struggle.  Personally, I dislike procedures that assume the end user knows absolutely nothing.  Stating the pre-requisites required of the user at the outset is sometimes the answer.  “These instructions assume the user has knowledge of MS Excel and IPv4.” as an example.  And when personally involved in helping a neophyte with someone else’s procedure, my mantra is often “Google is your friend”.

    • #5
  6. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I wish my bosses would write down their instructions and orders.

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Penfold: Personally, I dislike procedures that assume the end user knows absolutely nothing.  Stating the pre-requisites required of the user at the outset is sometimes the answer.

    I don’t assume Slow Joe knows nothing.  Slow Joe knows the prerequisites.  He is just bad at them.He is part of the organization.

    My goal with this suggestion is to find the lowest common denominator.

    Seawriter

    • #7
  8. Pencilvania Inactive
    Pencilvania
    @Pencilvania

    I’m printing this out to go in my teaching folder.  I don’t often teach art classes but when I do, this will help a lot in prepping for each project.  I’m not a born teacher and it always surprises me how disorganized a lesson can become when I don’t do these steps beforehand – particularly the ‘optimizing’ part.  There are always a number of supplies that are used several times through the creation process, and thinking through the most efficient way to use them during the project will undoubtedly improve the lesson.

    • #8
  9. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Happy birthday, Seawriter, and a great post.

    • #9
  10. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Thanks, Seawriter.

    The Ricochetti have such a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. I learn a lot. I like the best is reading the blinding simple ideas that I never thought of but now will never forget. “Gather and Go” is such a concept.

    • #10
  11. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    The August Series is up and the theme is Cities.

    • #11
  12. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    So Happy Birthday Sea,

    As for the topic I have been on both ends of the process professionally for a similar amount of years as you. I though I disliked writing the procedures, but having been on the receiving end for the last two decades, I think reviewing and getting them into shape can be a more seriously brain numbing exercise. My writing skill are abysmal, (the product of a public school education) so it has always been penance.

    Unfortunately the value of the items we are testing in not trivial, and the techs do follow them right off a cliff. So caffeine all around and then grind out the test procedures line by line before we vacuum tank the article.

    On the personal front, one of the reasons I purchased and built the airplane in the upper left corner was they had one of the best set of instructions I saw before I purchased.  I reviewed a lot of instruction sets before I committed. Well even with what I thought was comprehensive guide, a lot of head scratching ensued with frequent calls to the factory for details. This probably dragged the process out by a good year and change.

    The next project I am doing has even poorer instructions. I already purchased them so I know. I would consider it more of order of activities list, (with illustrations!).

    The plane has the characteristics I want so as I mentioned elsewhere I am taking a 3 month sabbatical living in a trailer at the hanger of the manufacturer in Dec to build it under their nose(s).  I will try to document my progress for the few geeks here who declared interest in the process (we see he noted under his breath). But I am hoping the ability to grab someone by the sleeve will insure no mistakes or back tracking, which really extended the build time of the last project.

    So it just like doing your little models right?  Just full scale!!!

    • #12
  13. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Keep us informed, GLDIII. It sounds like a great way to spend the fading months of 2015, and many of us will find it very interesting.

    • #13
  14. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    GLDIII: the techs do follow them right off a cliff

    We call this malicious compliance. Treat us like we have no brains and we’re sure to eventually act like it.

    • #14
  15. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    The King Prawn:

    GLDIII: the techs do follow them right off a cliff

    We call this malicious compliance. Treat us like we have no brains and we’re sure to eventually act like it.

    KP

    It depends, most of the techies I work with are old hands and are real artisans.  The stuff they are doing is almost always one of kind and destine for space. I never treat them with contempt. Most of my issues are with the young buck engineers involved with testing stuff and are building an experience base. They tend to worry about asking the older engineers questions (because the fear looking dumb) and not yet cognizant that the techs are like the petty officers in the military, they really know the ropes.

    • #15
  16. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    GLDIII: Most of my issues are with the young buck engineers…

    Lockheed got a whole mess of fresh faced graduates at my workplace several years ago. I saw one of the older engineers I’m chummy with leading them around one day. I took a rope and tied a bunch of handles in it so he could lead them like I see the daycare workers doing with the toddlers. Ken got the joke, all the new BSers, not so much.

    • #16
  17. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    Thank-you very much for this post, Seawriter. My wife and I are both astrophysicists who have written simulations and analysis software that others use, and we’ve struggled to come up with decent tutorials and instructions, since this is sort of a side line for us. I’ll read your post in detail and show it to her.

    • #17
  18. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Tim H.:Thank-you very much for this post, Seawriter.My wife and I are both astrophysicists who have written simulations and analysis software that others use, and we’ve struggled to come up with decent tutorials and instructions, since this is sort of a side line for us.I’ll read your post in detail and show it to her.

    Well . . . I do contracting. If you (or anyone else reading this thread) ever needs a tech writer, private message me.

    Seawriter

    • #18
  19. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Seawriter:

    Penfold: Personally, I dislike procedures that assume the end user knows absolutely nothing. Stating the pre-requisites required of the user at the outset is sometimes the answer.

    I don’t assume Slow Joe knows nothing. Slow Joe knows the prerequisites. He is just bad at them.He is part of the organization.

    My goal with this suggestion is to find the lowest common denominator.

    Seawriter

    Eli Goldratt calls him the Herbie in The Goal. Putting the Herbie up front is good advice when hiking, producing, or testing.

    • #19
  20. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    • #20
  21. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    FG,

    I bet you could write a book on how everything but what works is done.

    • #21
  22. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    10 cents:

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    FG,

    I bet you could write a book on how everything but what works is done.

    Someone beat me to it. [Non-CoC link]

    • #22
  23. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Fricosis Guy:

    10 cents:

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    FG,

    I bet you could write a book on how everything but what works is done.

    Someone beat me to it. [Non-CoC link]

    It is nice to have a Kindle so people cannot judge the covers.

    • #23
  24. GLDIII Reagan
    GLDIII
    @GLDIII

    Fricosis Guy:

    10 cents:

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    FG,

    I bet you could write a book on how everything but what works is done.

    Someone beat me to it. [Non-CoC link]

    If it was not for the discourse topic in this book we would all have a lot less to say….Just saying.

    • #24
  25. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    Oddly, tech writer are among the worst offenders. I suspect one reason I was let go was because I kept thumping the drum about developing standards and procedures for the tech writing group I was in.  How can you tell whether you are doing a good job or a bad job without standards? How do you know whether you have left something important out if without procedures and checklists? But it was too much work.

    Seawriter

    • #25
  26. user_137118 Member
    user_137118
    @DeanMurphy

    The “SOP for SOP’s” reminds me of my work.

    We finally (after 10 years that I’ve been there) have one of our number partially dedicated to documenting standards of practice.  It was originally intended to instruct contractors and improve the usability of the code they turn out; but it has improved the code we turn out as well.

    • #26
  27. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Seawriter:

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    Oddly, tech writer are among the worst offenders. I suspect one reason I was let go was because I kept thumping the drum about developing standards and procedures for the tech writing group I was in. How can you tell whether you are doing a good job or a bad job without standards? How do you know whether you have left something important out if without procedures and checklists? But it was too much work.

    Seawriter

    No one likes to eat one’s own dog food.

    • #27
  28. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    GLDIII:

    Fricosis Guy:

    10 cents:

    Fricosis Guy:I like this post. People often forget to build a proper “SOP for SOPs.”

    FG,

    I bet you could write a book on how everything but what works is done.

    Someone beat me to it. [Non-CoC link]

    If it was not for the discourse topic in this book we would all have a lot less to say….Just saying.

    If I can’t blind them with my brilliance, I baffle them with my [expletive] — The FG Dad

    • #28
  29. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @MrAmy

    I’m writing a training manual for the kitchen. I say writing, but I’m mainly thinking about it. I think this series will be useful.

    One of the harder things to account for is employee skill. As an example, I wrote a set of recipes for a luncheon.

    My roll recipe was the list of ingredients, “Strait dough method” 8-10 minutes at 400 degrees. The baker I had wasn’t a baker, so I had to write it out more completely.

    Regarding 2 on the list – you don’t realize just how much stuff you use until you set up the line without a checklist, and when you open you realize that you forgot knives. (Also working on a line checklist)

    • #29
  30. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    MrAmy:I’m writing a training manual for the kitchen. I say writing, but I’m mainly thinking about it. I think this series will be useful.

    One of the harder things to account for is employee skill. As an example, I wrote a set of recipes for a luncheon.

    My roll recipe was the list of ingredients, “Strait dough method” 8-10 minutes at 400 degrees. The baker I had wasn’t a baker, so I had to write it out more completely.

    Regarding 2 on the list – you don’t realize just how much stuff you use until you set up the line without a checklist, and when you open you realize that you forgot knives. (Also working on a line checklist)

    If you ever get your hands on an old McDonald’s Ops Manual, I think you’ll find it an excellent model. It covers some pretty sophisticated stuff — managers are expected to know how to deal with maintenance issues — in a straightforward manner.

    • #30
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.