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Operating Procedures: Minimalist Writing
Make Every Word Tell
In the year 1918 Professor William Strunk, Jr. wrote the book Elements of Style; it was enlarged and updated by E.B. White in the year 1959. (The fourth edition of the book, usually referred to as ‘Strunk and White’, was published in the year 2000.) Although written all those years ago, the advice in the book should be used by anyone writing operating procedures in the year 2023.
The following quotation lies at the heart of Strunk’s writing philosophy.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
In this series of posts, we discuss how Professor Strunk’s advice can be applied by those writing procedures. We will consider,
The use of short, pithy instructions,
Avoidance of the repetition of instructions,
Omission of needless words,
Omission of adverbs,
The use of short and old words, and
Avoidance of wordy phrases and padded syllables.
(These thoughts are mostly taken from the book Process Risk and Reliability Management.)
An operating manual should be written using a minimalist style of writing. There are various elements to minimalist writing, not all of which are useable, or even safe, were they to be applied to the process industries. Nevertheless, the concept of minimizing ‘soft’ materials in the manual is important. Minimalist writing eliminates all extraneous material. It is not quite the same as writing with just a few words x — if many words are needed then many words should be used. But every word must help the operator run his or her unit. All extraneous materials should be ruthlessly purged. Every word must tell.
Many operating manuals are cocooned in a cloud of ‘soft’ materials such as introductions, summaries, generic safety instructions and company mission statements. None of these materials help an operator or maintenance worker do his or her work more efficiently or more safely; instead, they pad the manual with material that gets in the way, thereby increasing the time it takes find the pertinent instructions. In response to this concern, the minimalist approach eliminates these soft materials. An operating manual should tell the operator how to do his work — no more, no less. All other material should be located in other documents.
For example, if it is a company’s policy that persons working outside must always wear a hard hat, no matter where they are or what they are doing, then there is no point in inserting that requirement in every operating procedure. The requirement to wear a hard hat is a condition of employment — not an operating instruction. However, if a particular task requires that the operator wear hearing protection then it is in order to include that requirement in the procedure itself.
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