With Procedure Writing, Point of View is Everything

An engineer at the United States Norfolk Naval Base asked, “Why are so many procedure manuals impossible to read?”

The answer is two-fold. First, most instructions are written from the wrong point of view:

  • Users want a reading as I work viewpoint that answers the simple question, “What do I do next?” (Think recipe for making bread.)
  • Content experts, and their wannabes, write from a reading for knowledge viewpoint. This answers the complex question, “How does this system work?” (Think explanation for how yeast interacts with flour.)

Reading for Knowledge vs. Reading as I WorkWhen writing instructions, reading for knowledge viewpoint is the wrong kind of information. Take this example of motorcycle safety training. Instead of instructing a rider on how to manage the risk of road hazards, the content expert explains the combustion mechanics of a Harley Davidson engine. This will explain what creates the percussion-rumbling sound, but it won’t help save the rider’s life.

Second, reading for knowledge viewpoint also lends itself into displaying procedures in a paragraph format, like what you find in a textbook. This in turn promotes:

passive voice
sequencing errors
missing steps
confusing conditions
ambiguous doers
verbose, technical language.

In short, this document only makes sense to other content experts who can recognize the process buried in the prose!

Reading as I work viewpoint makes the organization of the procedure visually apparent to the users. The writer chooses the appropriate format based on the whether the process is linear or non-linear and the juxtaposition of four factors: how many steps, conditions, doers, and screens/forms are interacting within the procedure.

A “reading for knowledge” viewpoint—not a good idea if you want to get things done!

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