Quintessential Quality

How To Write Good

Good writing skills are a must have for any quality professional.  We are constantly asked to write procedures, protocols, methods, and reports.  I have had the privilege (well… maybe the opportunity) to author and review a ton of standard operating procedures throughout my career, and I’d like to share some best practices I’ve learned for writing good documents.

Know your audience

Who are you writing for?  Is it the quality manager who knows all about validation protocols, out of specification results, and statistical process control?  Or maybe it’s the brand new analyst that just started in the lab.  Either way, you need to know who your audience because that knowledge will guide your writing.  Experts are going to be familiar with technical or scientific terminology.  A technician may also be technical, but would appreciate more practicality.  Clear, step-by-step instructions may be most appropriate for a non-specialist.  Knowing our audience also means understanding their background.  Your reader’s experience, education, or training on the topic will have a significant impact on the content you put into the procedure.

Figure out what they want

You could write the most brilliant and poetic procedure in the world, but if it’s not what your audience wants, it’s worthless.  If the operations manager wants a general procedure that summarizes the housekeeping activities, give it to him!  Craft the scientist a step-by-step analytical method to perform an assay!  Create a practical work instruction for the accountant to use the new accounting software.  The quality of an SOP is measured the frequency of its use and its ability to fulfill its purpose.

Cut out the fluff

For the most part, standard operating procedures are technical documents.  An SOP is not the place for you to unleash your inner Shakespeare or Poe.  Every extra word or letter costs money and time – to write it, to print it, to read it, etc.  Cut words and simplify sentences whenever possible.  Simple, direct sentences (subject verb object period) convey thoughts efficiently and reduce the chances of making a grammatical error (yes, you must still use proper grammar).  The goal is to find the perfect balance between brevity and completeness in each sentence you write.

Embrace pictures and graphics

You all know the old saying about pictures and words.  I am a huge fan of pictures, screenshots, and flowcharts in my documents.  When writing procedures for very long activities, you should really consider using a graphic format. The graphic format breaks long processes into shorter subprocesses that consist of only a few steps. Workers can learn several short subprocesses more easily that one long procedure. Graphics are helpful regardless of the literacy level or native language of a worker, and they make your documents more creative and exciting.

Focusing on these basics will help you become a more effective writer.  If you don’t believe me, just look below at how I used to write before I read this post! If you have any great tips you’d like to add, please share them in the comments.

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