4 Key Considerations for SOP Creation

10 May 2024


You might already know that our team at The Writers For Hire likes to think of standard operating procedures (SOPs) as a building’s structural support. That is to say, no matter where you work or which industry or establishment you’re a part of, SOPs are essential to your operations.

That’s because an SOP is a documented set of instructions or standards that guides employees through the tasks, activities, behaviors, and processes they engage in to accomplish organizational goals.

A high-quality SOP is accurate, can be easily absorbed by its users, promotes efficiency, and effectively accomplishes its purpose. Of course, using an SOP is entirely different than writing one. If you’ve been tasked with the writing job, how can you ensure you’re writing a solid SOP?

There’s no need to worry! We’ve compiled some handy tips to help you prepare for the process. (And sop up your panic sweat. Wink.)

There are four key areas that are important to pay attention to when writing SOPs:

  • The people who are responsible for the SOP creation
  • The time required to produce the SOPs
  • The user-friendliness of the SOPs
  • The system used for storage and maintenance of the SOPs

The People Creating the SOPs

One of the primary pitfalls in SOP creation is in choosing the wrong people to write these important documents. Before we continue, we’re going to create a simple (imaginary) scenario to help clarify what we mean.

Bailey works at The Turmeric Trove and is responsible for processing turmeric root into powder. However, the process hasn’t been documented. So, the company’s president has asked Bailey to write an SOP for the process.

While it might seem logical to ask the person who knows and performs the process covered by an SOP to write it, there are a few reasons why that’s not necessarily the best choice.

For one thing, Bailey may be too embedded in the process to recognize what needs to be included, or to accurately discern which aspects need additional clarification.

For example, Bailey might identify the first step as collecting the turmeric root from a drying area.

But is that really the first step? In reality, the first step is to wash your hands and put on gloves—but Bailey is too immersed in regularly performing the process to realize this.

We can see that for someone unfamiliar with the process, this makes a crucial difference in the accuracy and completeness of the SOP and the safety of the resulting product.

Another factor often overlooked is whether Bailey possesses the necessary skills to effectively translate the process into written form. Bailey wasn’t hired to be a writer but to process turmeric. So, it’s important to consider if Bailey has any technical writing experience.

And on a related note, does Bailey even like writing, or want to write the SOP? If Bailey is not a writer, creating an SOP might seem intimidating—even scary. But more important, does Bailey have time to write it? It’s common for the person assigned to write an SOP to already have plenty of work to do, and if Bailey isn’t keen on writing the SOP, the existing work will probably take priority.

Thus, it’s often better to enlist someone else—either a technical writer or someone with a knack for procedural documentation—to create the SOP. Their technical writing expertise, combined with their distance from the process, enables them to create a thorough SOP.

The Time Needed To Create the SOPs

Wintress Odom, the founder and owner of The Writers For Hire, emphasizes that one of the most common mistakes people make when writing an SOP is underestimating how long it will take. Every SOP is different, but a few key common factors impact the time it takes to write any SOP.

Who’s Writing the SOP

The time needed to create the SOP is directly impacted by the person or team responsible for writing it. For example, let’s say that Bailey has a real knack for writing standards. In this case, it likely won’t take Bailey, who is so familiar with the process that needs to be documented, an exorbitant amount of time to write the SOP.

However, if someone other than Bailey will be doing the writing, they are going to need more time. For example, let’s say the SOP will be written by Madison, a member of The Turmeric Trove’s content team. Since Madison doesn’t know how to process turmeric root into powder, Bailey will need to explain the process first, including every detail.

What the SOP is Documenting

Like we said, every SOP is different. Unfortunately, it’s easy to assume all SOPs are the same and allot an hour or two to create any (and every) SOP. This kind of thinking is a trap!

Complex and extensive procedural descriptions will require a lengthier, more detailed document, while simpler ones will yield a shorter, more basic, one.

Some SOPs require cross-departmental collaboration, which can take some time to coordinate and accomplish.

Returning to our example, let’s say that as Bailey explains the process, Madison realizes further input is needed from other company members.

The more clarification Madison needs and the more people Madison needs to collaborate with, the more time it will take to create the SOP.

Access to a Template and Example

Just as every SOP is different, the methods and standards for creating them are different for every business. If you’re not familiar with those methods and standards, you might spend days writing an SOP that’s ultimately deemed unacceptable. That’s why it’s essential to provide your SOP writers with both a template and an example. Not only will these help guide them through the writing process; they will also save the writer a substantial amount of time.

When a writer has a template, an example, and a thorough understanding of the process to be documented, you can plan on allotting about an hour per page. This breaks down to about 30-40 minutes writing each page, with an additional 20-30 minutes dedicated to revisions, edits, and general cleanup.

Making the SOPs User-Friendly

It’s no surprise that user-friendliness is paramount when it comes to SOPs. After all, real people must be able to use them! Since user-friendliness is a broad topic, we’ve organized some of the most important user-related “things to watch out for” into three categories.

1) Utilize easily-digestible structuring.

One of the most significant strengths of a high-quality SOP is that anyone can easily and quickly digest its content—yes, anyone. While we may have all grown up writing papers and stories for school that consisted of dense paragraphs, that’s the opposite of what you want to do when writing an SOP.

“It shouldn’t look like a book,” as Odom puts it. “You should be able to easily skim it.”

Accordingly, an SOP should capitalize on the use of white space to direct its reader’s attention. Use lots of headings and subheadings to clearly delineate sections and be sure to use short sentences and paragraphs to clearly convey information. We also suggest the frequent use of lists and incorporating call-out boxes to highlight vital tips or warnings.

2) Utilize consistent formatting.

Formatting goes hand-in-hand with an SOP’s structure but focuses more on the technical side of structure.

For instance, it’s vital to consistently format all an SOP’s headings and subheadings, and to ensure consistent phrasing and tense usage to avoid tripping up the reader.

Similarly, bolding for key terms is important, but it’s just as important not to overuse this feature.

If you bold a lot of text, the bolding loses its significance!

One of the most important formatting tips we can give you is to pay attention to how you format your lists. This might sound silly, but proper and consistent use of bulleted versus numbered lists can drastically impact the user-friendliness of an SOP. Numbered lists are typically used for ordered steps in a process. Bulleted lists, on the other hand, can be used for anything else. Keeping these straight will help avoid unnecessary user confusion.

Recall our example SOP documenting how to process turmeric root into powder. The actionable process steps would be enumerated in a numbered list, whereas the necessary supplies would be named in a bulleted list.

3) Utilize clear language.

Clear language is like the glue that connects every aspect of an SOP, making it one cohesive, user-friendly document. Although this might sound like a “no-brainer,” using clear language is often easier said than done.

Remember, anyone should be able to use a high-quality SOP with minimal effort. This means the language it uses should be simple and easily understood by a 5th- or 6th-grade student.

You should also avoid using passive language, as this can foster a lack of clarity about who is supposed to do what. Similarly, it’s essential to use role titles in an SOP, not the names of actual people. For example, let’s return to our example SOP that documents how The Turmeric Trove processes turmeric root into powder. Say that Step 8 reads:

8. Separate the turmeric that was too large to be sifted through the screen into jars and store. This will make it easier for Bailey to record and update the associated data later.

The thing is, Bailey may retire or find a new job! This means the SOP will quickly become confusing when Bailey no longer works at The Turmeric Trove. Instead, use the name of Bailey’s current position—such as “Processor.”

The whole point of an SOP is to provide the user with understanding, guidance, and clarification—and one of the most ambiguous words is “this.” Take a look at Step 8 again:

8. Separate the turmeric that was too large to be sifted through the screen into jars and store. This will make it easier for Bailey to record and update the associated data later.

Do you know what “this” refers to? Is it the separation of the turmeric, or is it the storage of the jars? Or is it referring to something from a previous step? How can the reader know for sure?

We suggest avoiding using the word “this” in any SOP. If you wish to use “this,” be sure to identify what “this” refers to in each instance.

On a related note, it’s also important to pay attention to your usage of the words “should” and “must.” No one likes being told what to do, and this natural dislike has created a resistance to using direct language when writing SOPs. Most of us would instinctively opt for the word “should” over “must,” as it sounds more polite. But these words carry entirely different meanings that can severely impact the ways procedures are followed.

Let’s jump back to Step 1 of processing turmeric root into powder. Consider the use of the word “should:”

1. You should wash your hands with soap before putting on gloves.

Now consider using the word “must”:

1. You must wash your hands with soap before putting on gloves.

See the difference? “Should” implies that it’s okay if the first action (washing your hands) isn’t completed. “Must” means it’s not okay if the action isn’t executed. Thus, we can see that when it comes to food safety and other areas of legal compliance, proper usage of these two words is absolutely critical.

Storing and Maintaining the SOPs

It’s not unheard of for someone at a company to create an SOP, show it to a few people who need it, and then allow it to be forgotten. The SOP gets lost somewhere in the abyss! That’s why, when you’re writing an SOP, it’s important to understand who will be using it, where it will be kept, and how it will be maintained.

Consider the following questions to help ensure your standard operating procedures are accessible, up-to-date, and used:

  • What’s the organization’s system for producing SOPs?
    • Is it easily accessible?
  • How will the SOP be distributed?
    • Are there measures in place to ensure the recipients have read it?
  • How often will the SOP be reviewed?
    • Who will review it?
  • Who’s in charge of updating the SOP?
    • How will the updated version be redistributed?


Write SOPs With The Writers For Hire

As you can see, there are a lot of different elements to watch out for and pay attention to when writing SOPs—and there’s no shame in wanting or needing assistance!

At The Writers For Hire, we understand the importance of clearly-outlined instructions that make sense to anyone who needs to use them. Our team is ready to help you create SOPs that ensure consistency across your business—a consistency that your clients or customers are sure to notice.

Coralee Bechteler 
In the past, Coralee has been an organic farmer, a chicken herder, a zipline administrative assistant, and an ESL teacher for kids. Today, she's living her childhood dream of being a writer. She currently resides in New York with her cat (and muse) Hermes and a miles-long TBR list that gets longer every day. If she's not reading or crafting, you can usually find her pulled over on a country road writing something down or picking wildflowers. Coralee holds a bachelor's degree in English, an associate's degree in Horticulture, and multiple internationally recognized software testing certifications.

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