When you think of the word “procedure,” you probably think of attorneys following courtroom etiquette or your HR department’s stuffy “Policies and Procedures” documentation. If you’re a tech writer, you might also think of the instructions you write every day. (“1. Click the File menu. 2. Click Print.”)
A procedure, or a set of instructions, is all of those things, according to Merriam-Webster. But it’s much more, too.
In fact, what you probably don’t realize is that you come across procedures all day long, every day. To see what I mean, read my fictional account of one woman’s typical day. See if you can spot the procedures our heroine encounters.
A Day in the Life
On workdays, a woman named Cheryl wakes up at 6:30, the alarm clock jarring her from sleep. This morning is no different. Slamming the alarm clock into silence, she staggers into the shower, where she washes her hair using a new, “organic” shampoo. Because she’s never used the product before, she reads the directions first, squinting through the water running down her face. She’s not surprised to find the obligatory “Lather. Rinse. Repeat,” on the back of the bottle.
Clean and dry, she brushes her teeth and takes her asthma medication. Again, it’s a new prescription, so she reads the label: “Take one dose twice daily.”
Kissing her husband good-bye, Cheryl hops into her Ford Escape and starts the engine, noticing that the display has a message for her: “Change oil soon.”
On the way to work, Cheryl encounters six stoplights (four red, two green), and one Stop sign. Parking her car in the office parking lot, she gathers her things (including her access card) and walks up to the building. At the door, she obeys the first sentence on a sign that reads, “Slide card. For assistance, go to the lobby,” and enters the building.
At lunch she takes a yoga class, following her instructor’s commands through a Sun Salutation series. The instructor tells her to, “Come into Downward Dog position,” and “Move into Plank position.” Cheryl follows dutifully.
On her way home from work, Cheryl stops at the grocery store. She picks up milk, Shredded Wheat, leafy green lettuce, a bottle of Chardonnay, and a 12-pack of Diet Pepsi. To check out, she stands in the line marked “Ten items or less.” At the POS machine of the checkout counter, she slides her credit card through the slot. When the machine display reads, “Enter your PIN for debit, or press Cancel for credit,” she presses Cancel and finishes the transaction.
Once home, she cooks dinner for herself and her husband using a recipe for chicken in wine sauce. After dinner she cleans up the dishes and wanders into her craft room to start working on a quilt for her new nephew. She reads the quilt pattern closely, making sure she cuts up the fabric according to the stated dimensions. About 11pm she watches the news with her husband, noting a story about how to protect her credit from identity thieves. Then she sets the alarm for 6:30 am and falls into a comfortable sleep.
Procedures, Procedures Everywhere…
Did you find the procedures? As you hunt for them, remember that procedures always….
- Lead the follower to a specific, discrete goal.
- Make a promise (explicitly or implicitly) that following the procedure leads to that goal.
- Use the imperative mood.
- Include one or more command statements.
- Appear in graphical, audible, or verbal form, or some combination of these.
(Next time, I’ll point out the procedures in our little narrative—there are 15, counting the entire yoga class as one–and explain what makes them procedures. After that, we’ll side-shift into talking about the procedures technical writers most often write.)
Yes, It Matters
Tech writers are prone to thinking that our work doesn’t matter, that nobody reads it. By culling information about procedures from everyday life, I wanted you to see that what we write does matter. Even if we don’t write the recipes in the cookbook or the steps in the display of the POS machine, we set the standard for people who do.
And isn’t it amazing that a procedure can be as long and complicated as one written for installing a satellite dish, for example, or as simple, as laconic, and even as elegant as “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.”