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Beware of 3-Headed Documents

Policies, procedures, processes–these are three distinct types of documents. Unfortunately, their apparent similarities tempt many writers to lump policy, process, and procedure together in one document. When they do, the reader who wants to follow the procedure gets stuck in the policy. The reader who needs to know the policy stumbles through the process description. And the reader who wants to understand the process wanders through the step-by-step procedure.

Here are descriptions of the three P documents:

1. A policy describes the rules:

“We permit telecommuting when it does not interfere with. . . .”
“Customer returns are allowed when the items are in saleable condition and. . . .”
“Make-up lessons are allowed in situations involving illness or family emergency.”

A policy does not include steps or a description of who does what.

Sample policies: a teacher’s policy on homework, a company’s policy on alcohol at company-sponsored events, a union’s policy on seniority.

2. A process describes what happens:

“When the Help Ticket is closed, the customer receives a Customer Satisfaction Survey. If the customer completes the survey, a thank you is sent by email. Then a coupon for 10 percent off is generated. . . . “

A process does not include steps to follow, but rather steps to know about. Sometimes flow charts illustrate the steps.

Sample processes: a scientific journal’s peer review process, a university’s process for determining financial aid, a mortgage company’s process for approving loans.

3. A procedure lists the steps to follow to accomplish a task:

1. Slide the black latch in the direction of the arrow.
2. Open the back of the camera.
3. Remove the film.

Procedures frequently begin with a list of parts and equipment needed, often with pictures of them. The steps begin with action verbs (slide, open, remove) that the reader actually follows.

Sample procedures: a recipe, instructions for assembling a desk, steps to follow to update a database.

In a Better Business Writing class last week, two technical writers bemoaned the fact that employees want to publish policies in the company procedure manual. When they are told that what they have written is not a procedure, the employees say, “But it says what we do.” Well, not exactly.  It describes the rules.

It is possible to write one document with policy, process, and procedure, as long as the document is broken into distinct sections with clear headings. But when the three parts run together, it becomes a three-headed document–fascinating but impossible to focus on. Usually the reader needs just one part–a procedure to follow, a process to understand, or a policy to adhere to–not all three.

Avoid three-headed documents. Know whether you are writing a process or a procedure or a policy, and stick to a plan. If you do so, your job and your reader’s will be a lot easier.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Beware of 3-Headed Documents”

  • Do you have a take on SOPs? “Standard Operating Procedure”s… This is where I frequently, and specifically within the government see the intermingled 3-headed monster. A contract that I work with is rewriting these as I type.. and I will definitely share these examples. I do believe all 3 parts are needed in many of the SOPs, but clearly delineated headings will definitely lay the groundwork.

    Love your site!

  • Hi, Brandi. I don’t have a take on SOPs, since I rarely see them in business writing classes. But I am glad you found this post helpful. Thanks for commenting.

    Good luck rewriting!


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