Writing clear policy documents

Clear policies and procedures can have a profound effect on any organisation; they ensure that people know what they are doing, systems work properly and the people within the organisation are confident that the information in the policies and procedures is accessible, easy to understand and current.

However, writing clear policy documents can be very difficult to do.

Before you can write a good policy, you need clear decisions on which to base your writing. If the organisation doesn’t have a clear sense of what it wants to do, you as the writer will be compromised – there is only so much you can do with confusing or incomplete information. Policymakers must agree on policy before you, the writer, can write the policies.

You must also decide on your audience – whom you are writing for. The answer is often, our policy is for everyone, they all need to read and understand it. However, this means you have to write a document that must address multiple audiences with different agendas.

The temptation is to write policy documents primarily for those who audit the policies, which means the documents are often written in the passive voice. The problem with that is it can cause  a reader to become a passive spectator – they don’t ‘get’ what they are expected to do. The rules here is simple:

  • Imagine the least experienced user and write for that person.
  • Write primarily for those who need to use or implement the information.

Policies and procedures should always accomplish something – never write a policy or procedure just because it seems like a good idea. Very often policies and procedures can be knee jerk reactions to an incident. Somebody makes a mistake and someone else says “we should put a policy in place in case it happens again”.

You need to be a ruthless editor to avoid repetition and confusion across a myriad of documents. Break information down into ‘chunks’ or ‘topics’, with each topic containing one subject with a specific purpose, and then refer to (or embed) that topic in the other documents.

We’ve been working on a project to simplify policy documents within an NHS Trust. It’s a challenge simplifying a set of complex interlocking documents, but the results can be striking – helping staff understand why they should do things in a certain way and what the organisation is aiming to achieve.


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