Writing Clear Policies and Procedures with Playscript
J. Richard Fleming CMC
The Playscript procedure writing style is widely known for its plain language, content organization, readability and usability for all kinds of audiences. Developed by Leslie Matthies over 40 years ago, Playscript has been used by hundreds of leading (and other) organizations worldwide as their procedure standard. Major consulting firms have trained their professional staff in its use as a primary work process documentation technique. Extending several of Playscript’s design elements to policy writing provides an organization with policies and procedures that have a uniform look and feel. A leading publisher recently did this, using Playscript as the style model for their commercially produced Controller's Policies and Procedures Manual.
Use Plain Language
The English language is very complicated. Its structure is not always precise; its variety is not always logical. Writing policies, procedures and other kinds of instruction requires plain language, clear and correct. What is needed is not great writing for the ages but simple writing that helps people to do their job or obtain direction. It should, however, be good English.
Make It Easy to Find Information
The writing style for policies and procedures is meant to tell people who are “reading to do,” who are skimming and scanning the material to quickly get the answer to the issue of immediate concern to them (i.e., what is the policy . . or . . how am I supposed to implement my piece of the policy?).
Policies and procedures (P&P) often use common elements to communicate, as do other documents. Policies and procedures are unique, however, in their subject matter. They are about operating practices for organizational performance. The Playscript (1) procedure writing style is known throughout the world for its plain language characteristics and excellent readability. The publishers of the Controllers Policies and Procedures Manual, (2) already familiar with Playscript, wanted a uniform "look and feel" for their publication. They needed a working model and guidelines for use by ten subject matter experts (SMEs) to develop 45 policy and procedure sections of the manual. The publisher contracted with the author to architect the P&P style model, with examples, and to provide content development procedures for the contributors. The Controller’s Manual uses Playscript for its procedure and policy style model using a number of its design elements to achieve the uniform appearance, clarity and readability desired for its target audience.
Use Margin Caption Format
Policies and procedures need to provide a consistent visual format and framework for the reader. Playscript innovated the use of the margin caption or two-column format, also known as the action format.
COMMON ELEMENTS OF POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
There are several writing and format elements common to the development and presentation of policies and procedures.
The margin caption format permits pages to be read vertically using a skim & scan reading strategy. The reader is able to move quickly down the left margin to find the caption of a topic of interest, and then move the eye to the right to digest the needed information. • Policies use the left column for headings or labels and the right column for text and graphics. • Procedures use the left column to identify the actor and the right column to describe the action being performed.
Use Common Writing Styles
Recommended P&P writing styles include: • • Action writing, based on the Playscript procedure writing style.
To improve readability, consistently CAPITALIZE . . underscore . . italicize . . and/or bold significant words or ones that change the meaning of the whole sentence, such as: Not . . If . . Except . . Unless Note: Overuse of these readability enhancement techniques can be counter-productive.
Structured writing, popularized by Information Mapping, Inc. (3), which extends the two-column format of Playscript beyond procedures to other forms of written communications (4). A common element in each of these styles is that the writer takes on more of the interpretive work than does the reader. Each of these methods predigests the information and uses graphics and page formats to present the content most clearly. Headings, bolding, and other layout and typographical devices are used to make the text more understandable.
USE STRUCTURED WRITING FOR POLICIES
Structured writing uses blocks of text to make material bite-sized and it uses side labels to enable readers to quickly find information.
Use Performance Orientation
Policies tell readers “what to do” and procedures tell them “how to do it,” at a high level. The writing is oriented around actions not terms. Performance orientation focuses on the duties and tasks a user is expected to perform and the information needed in order to perform them. Note: Low level work or operator instructions, unlike procedures, provide detailed, step-by-step instructions.
Use Concept of Blocks
Present information in visible blocks that are outlined. This makes information bite-sized and localizes all the information on one topic or aspect of a topic in one physical place.
Use Left Side Labels
Structured writing’s use of left-hand column labels coincides with research that suggests that the left half of the page has strong influence on reader attention. It can speed retrieval of information and improve readability.
Use Numbers, Letters and Bullets
Use numbers only in steps in a policy or procedure. Use simple Arabic numbers (1., 2., 3., 4., etc.) to show the main sequence. For sub-steps in the main sequence, indent and: • add a lower case letter, such as a) or b), to indicate an action sequence or if a bulleted list doesn’t sufficiently denote priorities or orders of importance. • add a bulleted list to indicate a random order.
Use an Overview
Overviews are used at the top of each page. Their function is to familiarize audiences with the nature and importance of new ideas, to relate new ideas to previously discussed concepts, and to provide a transitional and cohesive element to entering a page. Use short blocks and chunks. Within a page, many blocks are preferable to one long block. Within a block, many chunks of information are preferable to one long chunk. Break up longer blocks and chunks of information.
Note: Over-numbering is more distracting and confusing to the reader than it is useful.
Use Consistent Tools of Emphasis
Readers of directions (policies and procedures) often overlook key words which signal abrupt turns in the logic of a sentence.
Use Integrated Graphics
Liberally use tables, illustrations, diagrams and other visual effects as an integral part of P&P writing.
POLICY EXAMPLE USING STRUCTURED WRITING
USE ACTION WRITING FOR PROCEDURES
Policy No. 103, Issue No. 3 Date
Travel and Entertainment
Business travel and entertainment comprise reasonable activities conducive to the transaction of Company business. Employees traveling and/or entertaining on behalf of the Company have a stewardship responsibility regarding the use of Company funds. Reasonable, actual business expenses incurred by employees for the purpose of conducting business on behalf of the Company will be reimbursed upon approval by the employee’s manager.
Action writing uses plain language and an action framework to enable readers to easily follow instructions on “how to proceed.”
Write Action Sentences (Active Voice)
An action sentence tells the actor (the reader) what to do. First, name the actor (exact job or function title). Then provide the action sequence number (number the steps sequentially from beginning to end). Start each sentence with an action word . . a verb. Then continue with the action sentence. Actor ⇒ Sequence Number ⇒ Action Word Note: The action is stated in imperative sentences, which are useful for giving directions or commands.
Employees are not authorized to approve expenditures that they have initiated or incurred. Advances and business entertainment expenses shall be reported using the Travel and Entertainment Expense Report. Original receipts are required for an individual expenditure of $25 or more (receipts for lower amounts may be required by local policy); photocopies are not acceptable. The employee and the employee's manager must sign Travel and Entertainment Expense Reports.
Business Expenses Business expenses are: Those that are necessary to the operations of the Company. Those that benefit or advance the interests of the Company. Subject to requirements of reasonableness. Employee Related Expense Guidelines
o o o
o Use telephone and teleconferencing instead of travel for meetings. o Reduce paper and copies though use of electronic mail. o Eliminate overnight mail whenever possible. Use overnight
mail only for essential or emergency mail.
Use Straight Order
Straight order means that you first write the subject. Then you write the verb. You end your sentence by writing the object. Subject ⇒ Verb ⇒ Object Note: Writing action sentences usually results automatically in straight order sentences.
o Cash advances are available via the Corporate Credit Card
through participating automatic teller machines (ATMs).
PROCEDURES ACTIVATE POLICIES
The procedure is linked to the policy.
Use Present Tense
Write your verbs in the present tense. Examples: sends . . approves . . requests . . distributes Writing in either the second or third person is satisfactory. This positions readers to view the procedure in the context of their current involvement (vs. feeling somewhat removed).
Use Short Sentences
Make it short. Short is good! This improves readability. A short sentence is anywhere from 3 to 20 words. You are writing to make the required actions clear to readers with varying language skills and reading comprehension levels. Note: Writing action sentences usually results automatically in sentences of 3 to 12 words.
Policies tell employees the "what"; procedures tell employees "how" to go about doing it.
PROCEDURE EXAMPLE USING PLAYSCRIPT
Procedure No. AP 14 Version 2.4 Responsibility Employee
Distributing Policies and Procedures
Advances in electronic documentation enable all kinds of organizations, of any size, to inexpensively provide the latest versions of their policies and procedures to all employees - and to authorized outside organizations where appropriate. Innovations in computer-based multimedia document formats, such as Adobe’s PDF (portable document format), provide high quality paper documents without concern for unauthorized revisions being produced. Hypertext techniques enable a reader to hop, skip and jump efficiently between policy guidelines and linked procedures, work, task or operator instructions and form fill action steps. Similarly, infrastructure online delivery systems, like local area networks (LANs), internal Intranets - and, of course, the Internet - drastically reduce distribution costs while ensuring that only the latest versions of policies and procedures are made accessible to a specific audience.
Travel and Entertainment Expense Reporting
Step 1. Action Prepares Travel and Entertainment Expense Report, Form No. 8945: a) Completes heading information. b) Allocates and enters expense descriptions and amounts in appropriate columns. c) Adds columns and rows. d) Cross-foots totals to prove calculations. 2. 3. Tabulates expense receipts to prove to report totals. Makes photocopy of expense receipts for own use; attaches original expense receipts to Travel and Entertainment Expense Report. Signs and distributes Travel and Entertainment Expense Report copies as follows: • • Original (with receipts), Second and Third Copy Authorizing Manager Employee Copy (with copy of receipts) - Self
Reviews and approves employee’s Travel and Entertainment Expense Report. Note: All questions or discrepancies must be resolved before the expense report can be approved.
Distributes Travel and Entertainment Expense Report copies as follows: • • • Original, with original receipts - Accounts Payable Second Copy - Authorizing Manager File Third Copy - Employee File
Makes additional photocopies of approved Travel and Entertainment Expense Report ONLY (not receipts) as required for Business and Project Managers with budgetary responsibility for any of the employee’s travel and entertainment expense items. • • Distributes approved photocopies to appropriate managers. Files approved personal copy with receipt copies.
(1) Matthies, Leslie H., The New Playscript Procedure, Management Tool for Action, Office Publications, Inc., Stamford, CT, Second Edition, 1977 (2) Controller’s Policies and Procedures Manual, Warren, Gorham & Lamont - RIA Group, New York, NY, 1998 (3) Information Mapping, Inc., Waltham, MA 02452 (4) Brockmann, John R., Writing Better Computer User Documentation, From Paper to Online, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, 1986, pages 113-124.
J. Richard Fleming President Management Matters, Inc. 240 Ocean Boulevard Atlantic Highlands, NJ 07716-1724 (732) 291-0357 DickFleming@worldnet.att.net Dick Fleming is a member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its Policies & Procedures SIG. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a business process engineer with over 30 years experience using Playscript on client assignments. Mentored by Les Matthies, Dick is the authorized trainer of Playscript in the U.S.
USE COMMON TOOLS IN PREPARING POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
Crafting Policies and Procedures
Using commercially available word processing systems, such as Microsoft Word or WordPerfect or publishing systems like FrameMaker, greatly increases the flexibility of an organization to develop and maintain current, accurate policies and procedures. P&P templates distributed with discretion throughout an organization, in combination with basic training in P&P writing, can enable independent business units with special knowledge of their processes to implement their own departmental policies and procedures. The entire organization’s P&Ps will have a uniform look.