Document writing for the good
Let’s look at the beginning of the lifecycle of a record and talk about its creation. Have you ever heard the term “not worth the paper it’s written on”? It means that it has no value. With a policy, you need to ensure it adds value to your organisation. Don’t just have a policy for the sake of it, have a policy that is enforceable. I find that the key to writing a good document is to know exactly what you want to achieve with it.
All too often, the people who are being asked to write a policy, procedure or plan do not really understand the differences between these three documents, or the language you should for each one. Often, we try to fix this by providing templates within our organisations. However, they are not necessarily correct and they may not provide enough guidance on the language to be used. If the template is incorrect, we can’t necessarily change it without consulting others within our organisation. Even if we cannot change the template, we can certainly change the language we use, thereby ensuring that the message is clear.
Policies are high-level documents that define the culture of an organisation. Policies shape decisions and provide a framework for daily activities.
A policy describes the overall intentions and directions of an organisation. They provide a framework for organisational planning and action. They are written in the form of a statement, and may require the endorsement of the organisation’s governing body. A policy should address the ‘whys’.
The language to use is “must/will”. The clear and direct language will make it easy to identify a policy breach. The word ‘must’ can feel commanding, so I advise you to use it sparingly.
Average page count: 2-3 pages (A policy can be quite long, but this is okay as the usual organisational guff can be required. Avoid producing a 50-pager that no one will ever read.)
The plan sets out the objectives of an organisation and identifies the actions needed to achieve those objectives. This will be in line with the organisation’s policies and enable the delivery of its Mission Statement. Planning documents should link to, and be consistent with, the policy to which it relates. Examples include strategies (3-5 years), business plans, departmental plans, and individual action plans (often related to projects or reporting cycles).
Within a plan, you will use language such as ‘goals’, ‘objectives’ and ‘strategies’. It’s useful to know the difference between these three terms to keep your writing consistent.
Goals column: the verbs indicate that there is an end result to all of this doing.
Objectives column: the verbs indicate that something is changing
Strategies column: all the verbs convey that something is actively getting done.
All three terminologies require things to be measurable or actionable. This allows you to identify if your plan has been successfully implemented. Often each of the terminologies will be broken down with actions for implementation.
e.g. Achieve 1000 paying members [GOAL]
- Validate a full list of the current paid members and contact all members whose payments are outstanding
- Contact all members who have lapsed more than XXX months
- Create a membership survey to find out what entices members to come back
- Destroy all data that is over XXX years old from today’s date.
Average page count: up to 20 pages including an implementation plan.
A procedure describes a specific way to carry out an activity or a process in order to deliver a particular output or outcome. You can document procedures in the form of operational guides, manuals, handbooks, instructions etc. Processes can be in the form of a diagram, flow chart, decision tree, screen captures, or step-by-step. Procedures and processes should both be consistent with the policy to which they relate.
Average page count: Unlimited. It needs to be comprehensive in order to achieve the objective. However, you must ensure the content is focused and sticks to the intended purpose. You may find that a quick, easy to read reference sheet is more impactful. I frequently provide clients with quick guides which are two sides of A4. These are a few paragraphs that will quickly inform the end-user on a specific topic.
Each of these documents has a specific purpose. When you start to blur the lines between each document, you lose traction with your content. If you write a policy incorrectly it will be hard to enforce. This is because people don’t have time to read them, or the language has holes in it making it hard to enforce the content. If you use the correct language, there’s no wriggle room for the reader.
Here’s to me reading a document in the future with the right language – and not want to pull my hair out over the length and language!
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