What Is a Procedure?
A procedure is a set of instructions for performing a task. The task can be physical,
such as installing a modem, or mental, such as calculating the profit margin on a product.
Procedures are among the best known formats in technical communication.
Procedures tell users “how.” Specifically, procedures tell users how:
- To do something, such as changing the oil filter in a car.
- Various parts of a task relate to one another, such as how a bill passes through the a legislature.
- Something was done. Users can then verify what happened. For example, a researcher can review the procedures another researcher used to determine whether the analysis is valid.
- Something will be done. Users can then make necessary plans. For example, a procedure might state the plan for a documentation project. Users can then determine when they must distribute review copies (or receive them for review) and plan their time accordingly.
How to Write a Procedure
This section explains how to write a procedure. It starts by explaining how to start the procedure, then explains how to write the main part of the procedure, and concludes by explaining how to close a procedure.
How to Start a Procedure
Do the following to write procedures:
- First, state the goal of the procedure as succinctly as possible. For example:
This procedure tells you how to start your car.
This procedure tells you how we conducted the study.
Often, a good heading will suffice, such as:
Starting Your Car
How We Conducted the Study
- If readers need knowledge, supplies, or assistance to perform the procedure, next state that information in a Read Me First section, which precedes the procedure.
Present supplies needed as a checkoff list. The checkbox signals readers that they need to do something. For example:
Before starting the procedure, get these supplies:
Tip! Only explain “must-know” terminology and concepts in a procedure. That’s because readers use procedures to learn how to do something, not the concepts and terminology underlying them.
For example, readers must know what a command is before they can use it. But they do not need to know how a computer processes the command. A procedure for users, then, might define the term command but not explain the physical steps the system follows to process a command.
- Mention “Who should perform the procedure.” For example:
Who should perform the procedure?
- Technical writers
- Technical editors
- Technical illustrators
- Provide an estimate of the time needed to complete the procedure. Provide an estimate that is a little bit longer than the typical user needs to complete the procedure; if users complete the procedure in less time, they will feel a sense of success. Timed usability tests provide the best means of estimating the length of a procedure. By providing an estimate of the time needed, users can determine whether they currently have enough time to finish the procedure.
How to Write the Steps of the Procedure
Next, present the steps of the procedure. Consider these guidelines as you write a
- Write procedures as numbered lists. That is, begin each step with a number. The number tells readers the sequence for performing the steps. For example:
- Open the car door.
- Sit behind the wheel.
- Insert the ignition key.
- Turn the key to start the engine.
- Because users can handle only a limited amount of information at any given time, limit the length to 10 steps.
If your procedure has more steps, break them into a “mini-procedure” within the larger procedure. Present mini-procedures in one of these ways:
- As a separate procedure, with its own title. For example, suppose you are writing the procedure for solving problems with a computer, called a problem determination guide. Few computer problems can be solved in ten steps.
So, you might present an initial procedure that helps readers identify the nature of the problem (such as a hardware or software problem), then have separate procedures for solving the different types of problems.
- As a “procedure within a procedure.” That is, you might write the mini-procedure as a series of steps within the larger procedure.
When writing it, you indent the mini-procedure within the step of the main procedure.
To distinguish the steps of the mini-procedure from those of the main procedure, begin each step of the mini-procedure with a letter. For example:
- Open the car door.
- Sit behind the steering wheel.
- Start the engine.
- Insert the key into the engine.
- Turn the key away from you.
- Wait for the engine to start. You will hear a noise.
- Begin to drive.
- Consider the following when writing the steps in a procedure:
- Limit each step in a procedure to one task. If the step has several tasks, break the step into several steps or write a mini-procedure. Real-world experience indicates that users stop reading as soon as they encounter the action to be performed in a step.
- Present conditional information as a clause at the beginning of a step; do not place it after the action. Users usually stop reading as soon as they encounter the action and perform it. Placing the conditional information before the action is one way to make sure readers see it. For example, if users need to use both hands to hold a piece in place om an assembly line, say it at the beginning of the step, like this:
Holding the piece with both hands, place the assembly in the drying machine.
Do not write the clause like this:
Place the assembly in the drying machine and hold it with both hands.
- Write each item on the list as a self-contained task. A task is an action that can be performed physically or mentally. For tasks that users are expected to perform, write in the imperative mood. That is, begin with an action verb and tell readers what to do. Research shows that users read these types of directions faster than ones that do not begin with actions (Mirel, 1991).
Turn the power on.
Subtract expenses from revenues.
- For procedures that users are not expected to perform, include the agent (person who is expecte to perform the task) for each action so readers know who or what is responsible for that task. (That’s another way of saying, write in the active voice.) For example:
The Information Development department will distribute the information plan by January 22.The Programming, Product Test, and Marketing departments must submit their review
comments on the plan by January 29.
- The information plan will be distributed by January 22.
- Review comments must be submitted by January 29.
In this second version, readers do not know who is responsible for performing the steps. It might be them.
- When several people perform a procedure together, you need to state who performs each step and how responsibility passes among people performing the procedure. John Brockmann
calls this a playscript.
- The technical writer writes the document.
- The technical writer electronically transmits the document to the editor.
- The technical editor:
- Prints the document.
- Identifies the passages that need to be illustrated.
- Completes an Art Request Form for each illustration needed.
- Submits the Art Request Forms to the technical illustrator.
How to Close a Procedure
Close a procedure by:
- Telling users that the procedure is complete. You might write “You should now see the Program Manager of Windows with the New Program Icon on it. This is the end of Procedure,” or be more descriptive, writing something like “Your VCR should now be installed and ready for use.”
- Providing anticipated problems, and how to address them. For example, you might say “If the Program Manager appears but you cannot find the New Program Icon, then you should….”
Note that you should describe anticipated problems (results that are incorrect, but likely to occur anyway from a minor mistake at the users’ end) at the place that they would likely occur, so users receive immediate feedback and can easily correct problems themselves.
- Referring users to related procedures and other information of interest.
Here’s an example of a procedure that readers are expected to perform:
To choose a task from the action bar without using a mouse:
- Press F10.
- Move the cursor to the task you would like to perform.
- Press Enter.
Notice that each step begins with a number and is written as a command to the reader.
Here’s a procedure that readers are not expected to perform:
- Using the analysis of covariance test, Miller analyzed the data.
- Miller presented the results to Richards and Defoore for verification.
- Richards and Defoore certified the results.
Notice that each step begins with a number and that the agent for each step is
identified (the agent is the person who performed the step). Notice, too, that the
conditional clause in step 1, “Using the analysis of covariance test,” appears
at the beginning.
Also consider this example of what you should not do.
To choose a task from the action bar without using a
mouse: the F10 should be pressed, then the cursor should be moved to the task to be performed. Once the cursor is there, the Enter key should be pressed.
Notice in this example, that the procedure is presented as a paragraph and that the
paragraph is written in passive voice. This tells users what should be done, not what they should do.