The Writing Format – The Heart of a Policies and Procedures System

The writing format is a critical component of any successful policies and procedures system. And more importantly, the writing format must be consistently applied across both policies and procedures and must lay out content in an easy-to-read and understand format. Using the adage, “Practice makes perfect” applies in this situation. Practice does not make perfect unless it is correct practice. Given the same logic, the writing format is not acceptable unless it meets all the criteria of being a successful and effective writing format.

A “writing format” is a structure or outline format for presenting policies and procedures in a logical order that is easily understood by readers. The writing format lays out the content of any policy or procedure document and presents a logical reading sequence. The section-formatted structure can assure consistency among policy and procedure documents.

The ideal writing format is when there is no distinction made between a policy and procedure document. As the reader might guess, this would solve many problems and make publication, communication, and training easier. How is this done? Write a single document, e.g., travel expense report or purchase requisition, and don’t name it as a policy or a procedure document. Rather, use a writing format that contains a policy statement as one of the pre-defined, core sections; now, the guidelines of the document are directed by the embedded policy statement. The readers are pleased with this solution because now they don’t have to refer to separate policy and procedure manuals for similar content. In the examples below, the policy statement is the third section of the preferred “pre-defined sections” writing format.

There are three popular writing format styles, one of which stands apart from the others: (1) pre-defined sections; (2) free-flowing role structure or Playscript; and (3) free-flowing writing. The third writing format, free-flowing writing, is really no format at all. And unfortunately, many companies today use this “free-flowing writing” format (probably due the lack of knowing that a writing format template might exist). In this format, the content is written in a random, inconsistent manner. The reader is never certain about the starting or ending point of the policy or procedure document. This method is often referred to as the “Paragraph-style” of writing and generally leaves the reader guessing the purpose and importance of the policy or procedure document. This is NOT the behavior the policy and procedures writer wants from the reader.

The second writing format, the “free flowing role structure,” is often referred to as “Playscript.” Literally, “Playscript” refers to dialogue, a dramatic composition, or a screenplay. Policy and procedure writers use the “role” method adapted from the Playscript format where the role is stated in the first column and the action is stated in the second column of a two-column layout. The proponents of this format argue that the reader doesn’t need to know everything about the “who, why, what, where, and how” of every policy or procedure document. The opponents argue that the Playscript method is cumbersome and leaves the reader clueless as to the intent of the policy or procedure document. This is simply not a good format for documenting business processes.

The first writing format, “Pre-Defined Sections” is the easiest writing format for the reader to understand because the format consists of pre-defined, pre-approved sections that are used in every policy or procedure written and published. Consistency is quickly achieved. The seven core sections of the “Pre-Defined Writing Format” are Purpose, Scope, Policy, Definitions, Responsibilities, Procedures, and Revision History. Content, properly added into these sections, provide the “who, what, why, where, and how” of business processes and help to make up the substance of policies and procedures alike. Depending on the industry, the policy and procedures writer might add sections, e.g., background, references, or disciplinary actions for non-compliance.

A policy and procedure system without a consistently designed, and applied, writing format is probably broken, obsolete, or ignored by its readers. The writing format includes the mechanism for capturing ideas, workflows, solutions, forms, and any supplemental information about business processes, in one place. An effective writing format template contains the same core sections each and every time; there is never a deviation.

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