Word confusion: Clarity needed (policies, standards, guidelines, and procedures)

We here at Cohort enjoy the opportunity to assist those in the larger writing community by providing a bit of clarity to commonly used terms. We were recently asked the following question:

Q: Could you please clarify the differences between policies, standards, guidelines, and procedures? Most people I know, myself included, struggle with explaining these terms.

A: Let’s start this explanation by providing you with relevant definitions from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/

policy

  • a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions
  • a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body

standard

  • something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example: criterion <quite slow by today’s standards>
  • something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality

guideline

  • an indication or outline of policy or conduct

procedure

  • a particular way of accomplishing something or of acting
  • a series of steps followed in a regular definite order <legal procedure> <a surgical procedure>
  • a traditional or established way of doing things

I can now hear you say to yourself: “I could have looked the words up online myself!” so let’s put these words into a graphical form:

 

 

From the image, it can be seen that it is ‘policy’ that provides the overall control or sets the direction for any work that will follow, and must be signed by a recognized management authority. The ‘standards’ that are established are uniformly governed by the policy, and compliance is mandatory. Following these standards, ‘guidelines’ are suggested actions to consider if there are no set standards, from which new standards may be developed. Finally, ‘procedures’ provide specific instructions on how to perform desired actions.

Policy provides the ‘why’ something needs to be done, the standards and guidelines tell us ‘what’ is required, and the procedures give instructions on ‘how’ a task is to be completed.

Is this clear yet? Let’s look at a plain English example.

Here at Cohort, we enjoy having personal gatherings … yes, we actually get along with each other! As part of these gatherings, someone must bring a dessert (policy). Let’s say that a cake is the typical dessert (standard). Then, if we know of any dietary restrictions or other preferences (guidelines), the volunteer can either stop by a shop and buy an appropriate cake, or get creative and make one from scratch (procedure).

Hopefully, these explanations and example have assisted you in your search for clarity.

For more information about how to improve your written communications, or for assistance in creating clarity in words and how they are used, feel free to ask questions by contacting us today at info@cohorttechcomm.com, where we can also provide you with a free, no obligation quote for any of your other documentation needs.

Advantages of Written Communication for Businesses

When presenting information to a client, there are two main ways: you can speak to them by phone or in person, or you can put your words into writing in the form of handouts and emails. Which form is better?

Looking at this topic from a business perspective, a follow-up question should be asked: How time-sensitive does the response need to be? For example, you would not send an email reply if there is a fire on location, and similarly, you are not likely to (I hope!) have a quick 5 minute conversation about how to bring a multimillion dollar plant online.

Each form of communication has its advantages and disadvantages.

In general, you should talk to someone if the message is either time-sensitive (“There’s a fire, and I need you here NOW!”), or when multiple messages (text or email) have already been sent and it is just ‘easier’ to talk on the phone to provide final clarification. Personally, this happens after 2 to 3 messages have already been sent, and it appears that the message chain is about to become much longer.

Here at Cohort Communications, Inc., we focus on “Making order out of chaos!,” with a strong focus on your documentation needs. This emphasis implies that we have spent our careers in developing ways to assist businesses in achieving clarity in written communications.

Why is this clarity important? Let’s look at an overview of advantages of written communication:

  • written messages do not have to be delivered on the spur of the moment; they can be edited and revised several times before they are sent so the content can be shaped to maximum effect.
  • written communication provides a permanent record of the messages and can be saved for later study.
  • written forms of communication also enable recipients to take more time in reviewing the message and providing appropriate feedback.
  • written forms of communication are often considered more appropriate for complex business messages that include important facts and figures.
  • good writing skills often lead to increased client satisfaction; improved inter-organizational efficiency; and enhanced image in the community and in industry.

If you are reading this post, then it is likely you are already aware of the need to communicate clearly, and are either in the process of finding ways to improve your clarity, or are looking for someone to assist you in improving your communication needs.

Picture these scenarios:

  1. A potential client wants you to explain why your service or product is better than a competitor’s. As you talk to them, they become increasingly interested, but your handout is a mess, you’re your website is no better, with spelling errors and poor formatting. Does this provide a good impression to the client, and help you close the sale?
  2. You spend a great deal of money on R&D to create a tool, product, or service that provides savings in time, money, and increases client output. The problem is that clients don’t know how to use it effectively because the user manual is incomprehensible. To improve sales and client satisfaction, what is one easy way to fix this problem?
  3. Every business fears getting audited. Businesses use accountants and bookkeepers to keep their numbers in order. Who do you use to help keep your business processes clear so that audits become relatively painless? To ensure that your messages and concepts are being received clearly? To ensure that new hires are trained efficiently and have access to institutional knowledge?

In addition to assisting clients, written communications play a central role in maintaining smooth operations in your business. Clear reports on business activities, messages to shareholders, and communications to employees all ensure that no time is wasted in the restatement of tasks and activities. All of which works to improve your bottom line.

For more information about how to improve your written communications, or for assistance in creating clarity in the documentation for your organization, contact us today at info@cohorttechcomm.com for a free, no obligation quote.

Using Formatting to Improve Perceived Quality of Writing

writing Quality

Imagine this … you walk in to a job interview for the position of your dreams. It’s a position that you have been heading towards your entire career. It’s now time to impress the executives on the hiring board. Do you wear your:

a) tuxedo?
b) shorts, t-shirt, and sandals?
c) best suit?
d) most appropriate clothing for the position?

Without knowing what the job is, or what the company culture is, the ‘best’ answer to this question would have to be ‘d’. The purpose for wearing appropriate clothes is to show that you ‘fit’ into the company culture, that you understand how appearance affects perceived quality, and that you belong.

All of these thoughts about you are generated within the first 3 seconds of seeing you for the first time. Yes, even before you start to speak. Indeed, if something goes wrong, there is often no opportunity to undo a bad first impression. Someone other than you will likely get the job.

In a similar manner, when submitting a final document, formatting matters. You would not wear torn, dirty clothes to a job interview. How your document appears affects its perceived quality—in every industry. As a writer, if you want your document to be perceived as high quality, it needs to be clean, concise, and formatted well. Once your audience has seen your document for the first time, they will then start reading (hopefully!), giving you a chance to impress them with your content.

How can you improve your structure and formatting?

Unfortunately, there is no 1 best answer for this question.

The answer to most questions about style is to ‘do what the [target client] says’. Every company has (or should have!) guidelines for how they want their documents to be written. For example, the Government of Canada’s Industry Canada Style guide for writers and editors can be found [here]. Depending on the purpose of your document and where it will be published, there are many other style manuals in use. The most common systems are:

For a more comprehensive list of citation styles, the University of Maryland has a great list.

These guides may only cover the citation style. It is important for you as a writer to be sure to check the target client’s Instructions to Authors and to read sample papers for current formatting details.

Common issues in style and formatting include:

  • UK or US English spellings
  • headings and captions
  • notations
  • page numbering
  • line spacing
  • columns and general page layout

If publishing on the web, style sheets can be used to assist your layout needs. For more information on style sheets, see [here].

Overall, as a writer you need to follow all guidelines and instructions, as they contain special instructions for the document, can save you time, answer many queries, and ultimately keep you employed. Not all documents have the same requirements!

At the same time, relying on style and formatting will not help to boost the effectiveness or content quality of a poorly written document. The structure and formatting should be used to call attention to information and improve its usability rather than to distract from a lack of details.

Structure provides a backbone for a technical writing document, allowing for improved usefulness of the document. Developing and applying a consistent structure strategy can be an especially important step in improving documentation.

For more information about improving structure and formatting, or for assistance in establishing consistency guidelines for your organization, please contact us today at info@cohorttechcomm.com for a free, no obligation quote.

Determining Your Required Edit

Speed. Quality. Cost. The key trifecta an overworked overwhelmed manager faces when putting a project together. Generally, the premise is that you can pick two options: if you quickly want high quality, it’s going to be expensive; quality at low cost is likely to be slow; and fast, low-cost work is probably not going to be high quality.
What does this mean for a busy manager, faced with project deadlines and tight finances?untitled-1

As noted in a previous blog, there are three main levels of editing:

  • comprehensive editing
  • copyediting
  • proofreading

At a minimum, a quality copyeditor will ensure the document is mechanically correct (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) and stylistically consistent. For the busy manager, this level of editing assumes the core elements of the document are correct. In most cases, this level of editing is sufficient for standard documents. For example, if ABC Company is publishing internal documents or manuals—and have hired a quality technical writer—then there is likely no need to complete a deeper edit.

The issue arises when the intended document is to be read by external eyes. If ABC Company is publishing a report that is to be read by shareholders or stakeholders, then the document needs to be more than just ‘grammatically accurate’. This document now requires comprehensive editing. In this level of editing, the editor reviews both content (for completeness, accuracy, and appropriate language) and form (for organization, visual design, and usability).

For the manager, however, more time must be budgeted into the project to give the comprehensive editor time to complete their task, which may include multiple rounds of editing and discussions with subject matter experts (SMEs) before the document can be finalized.

Bringing us back to the speed-quality-cost trifecta, this level of editing is clearly going to be the most expensive, but will also result in the highest quality document.

In contrast, proofreading is the fastest and cheapest, as the focus at this point is to finalize the document and ensure the core suggested changes have been made to a document. The primary job of a proofreader is to compare the final version of a document with the marked-up version to make sure all corrections have been made and to remove any final typos.

Ideally, the handling of a document would proceed through the following steps:

  1. In a discussion with SMEs, content for the document is gathered and roughly organized.
  2. A draft is created, and SMEs confirm the logical order and ensure that relevant content is included.
  3. A comprehensive editor now gets a chance to go through the document, focusing on standardizing structure and organization.
  4. A subsequent discussion with SMEs ensures all content is accurate.
  5. The copyeditor now goes through the style/format and language.
  6. SMEs again confirm the content.
  7. The final proofreader then makes sure all changes requested by SMEs and confirmation of content made by the editors above have been addressed.

We at Cohort Technical Communications, Inc. would be happy to assist you with your technical documentation and editing needs. If you belong to an organization that you feel would benefit from one of our services, contact us today at info@cohorttechcomm.com to setup a free, no obligation quote.

Technical Editing Builds Credibility with Your Audience

blog-post

Words matter. If a writer wants their words to be read and clearly understood by another reader (i.e., not a private journal), then quality and care must be used before the document is submitted.

Indeed, the overall quality and organization of the document, website, or report doesn’t matter, if there are a substantial number of typos, grammatical errors, or—heaven forbid—spelling errors, the perceived quality of the document decreases. In a worst-case scenario, these errors can be perceived by clients as being representative of your entire company.

If a service provider knows this is the case, why would they submit a document that could damage the credibility of their business?

Unfortunately, once the technical documentation has been compiled, many administrators see editing as an option that is either not needed, or that it is just simply too expensive. But if poor writing can affect client perceptions of your work, or even worse create a scenario in which potential clients may turn to another provider, then why would anyone knowingly want to skip this step?

Those that want to skip this final step may feel:

  • automated spelling and grammar checkers are sufficient
  • technical writers should be able to edit their own final copy
  • it’s too expensive to hire additional staff
  • it’s simply an unnecessary and expensive step

The truth is that if a document contains grammatical and/or spelling errors, the reader will probably not trust the document.

Technical editing is the process of revising a document to present material related to business or technology in a way that it clearly and effectively communicates the concepts in the document. The main purpose of the edit is to make sure that the reader receives an error-free document. The process includes, but is not limited to, improving language in terms of content, accuracy, coherence, and consistency.

Editing is a very subjective term, with different people possibly giving different answers. The truth is, good editing may often go unnoticed, but even a single spelling mistake in a document can bring about a diminished reputation for your organization.

For this reason, technical editing should be regarded as a quality control job.

Responsibilities of the Technical Editor:

There are three main levels of editing:

Comprehensive editing: reviews both content (for completeness, accuracy, and appropriate language) and form (for organization, visual design, and usability).

Copyediting: ensures that the document is mechanically correct (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) and stylistically consistent.

Proofreading: compares the final version of the document with the marked-up version to make sure that all corrections have been made.

Overall, technical editors work with writers to improve the quality of the information being presented to the reader.

If you belong to an organization that you feel would benefit from one of our services, contact us today for a free, no obligation quote at info@cohorttechcomm.com.

Creating Business Documentation Infrastructure

Desktop PC with files stacked next to the monitor

Hello and welcome to our first blog post. In this article, I want to show you how easy it is to implement basic documentation infrastructure. This applies if you’re an employee or a contractor.  Following these steps will give your documentation a more polished and professional look. More importantly, it will enable you to focus more on writing solid content and less on hours of fussy formatting. For the sake of this article, I’ll assume you’re using Microsoft Word® to make this happen.

I use the following five steps when I first walk into a new work place:

1. Document Survey

Gather documents from several areas like Marketing, HR and Operations. Look at how the documents are set up. This serves as an informal document survey. Start with looking at what font each department uses. Hopefully they’ve standardized on a font. If they haven’t then, then this needs to be the first step in your list of recommendations. If they’re using Arial in their marketing documentation, then this is likely the font you should be using in all your deliverables to ensure that the documents you put out are aligned with other company publications. Is there a hierarchy of headlines? What’s underlined and what isn’t. How do they treat images? Do they have a glossary or appendix? Look at the styles are currently being used. How do they handle bulleted points? Are there any surprising discoveries? Make detailed notes on what you find. You’ll need them later.

2. Style Guide

Does the marketing department have a style guide? Chances are good they do. Get a copy and study it carefully. Look at the styles and how they’re used. Look at the logo rules and conventions. Are there special words that need to be used or never used? Makes notes of all of this. You’ll need to use it when you create your style guide. Be careful about making your style guide too large. If you make it hard to find the information, then people are going to avoid using it. Resist the urge to split up your style materials into separate documents, like a formatting guide, style guide and style sheet. This wastes needless time as you have to sort through multiple documents to find what you’re looking for. In a future blog posting, I will go into elaborate on what you need to build a workable style guide.

3. Creating a Template

Before creating any templates, ask yourself the following questions. What documents do you need to create? Who are you creating them for? What role will they serve? Talk with your SME and stakeholders to get an idea what needs to be created. Create some draft templates. Bring a couple of different approaches with you to get approval from the stakeholder. Add your styles to each Word template, once you have approval.

4. Adding Styles to Each Word Template

Once you have settled on your specific styles, then you need to add them to Microsoft Word.  The actual steps of creating the styles are beyond the scope of this article, but Google the topic for more information. When creating styles, give them intuitive names, like Heading 1 FG for Heading 1 Facilitator Guide. Using styles will save you time and ensure your documentation has a consistent look and feel . Once you’ve created this, meet with your client to show them what you’ve done and how it will save them time.

5. Create a Master Glossary/Common Vocabulary

With most clients, you’ll see cases where for example they’ll  use “client” in one section and “customer” in another. Failure to create a common vocabulary causes confusion whereas when everyone is speaking from a common vocabulary, you’ll experience improved communication and productivity. Flag words and phrases you discover in the course of reviewing documents. Put them in a Word document and meet with your client to gain clarity on what words are being used and what the correct definitions are. Once those definitions are arrived at, log them in a formal master glossary. Make this glossary available to all content creators. Confusion is greatly reduced when everyone is speaking the same language. See Abby Covert’s brilliant book How to Make Sense of Any Mess for more on common vocabularies.