Step 4: Check for Consistency
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a tale built on inconsistencies. In Wonderland, nothing is quite what it seems to be, and nothing remains the same for very long. Even Alice herself undergoes changes—the poor girl can’t keep from growing and shrinking. All the inconsistencies contribute to the story’s wonderfully disorienting “through the looking glass” feel. They help make Alice the timeless classic that it is.
But most people don’t want a “through the looking glass” experience when they’re reading the instructions in a user manual. Inconsistencies may charm and delight readers of fiction, but they just confuse and frustrate busy employees who are searching for the information they need to do their work. And inconsistencies can present real stumbling blocks to auditors who examine your documents. The 4th step in our series of 6 Steps to Better Compliance Documentation features ways to check your documentation for consistency.
Consistency is critical to compliance
A policies and procedures manual isn’t the right place to display your bent for creative writing. When you’re writing compliance documentation, consistency is critical. While it may not showcase your imagination and creativity, being consistent in your use of terms, acronyms, abbreviations and formats helps you make it easier for users to locate and interpret complex information. By writing with consistency, you can
- support comprehension and understanding,
- reduce the potential for inefficiencies and errors,
- help ensure that workers’ practices align accurately with the documentation, and
- minimize regulators’ requests for clarification.
Guidelines for achieving consistency
Follow these guidelines to achieve consistency:
- Decide on the terms you want to use in your document, and then apply them consistently. For example, don’t begin by calling something an “illustration” and later refer to it as a “graphic” or “picture.”
- Establish standard ways of presenting each type of information. For example, make sure all procedures are presented in a table format.
- Once you’ve defined an acronym, continue to use that acronym. For example, after introducing “Department of Energy (DOE),” use “DOE” throughout the document.
Ignore your creative writing teacher’s instructions. Remember that most people don’t really read documentation—users use it, and auditors examine it. Aim for consistency in terminology and formats, so users and auditors won’t become confused.
Check your work for consistency
Develop the habit of routinely checking your work for consistency. Ask these questions:
- Have you clearly defined all the terms, acronyms and abbreviations you’re using? And are you applying them consistently?
- Are you presenting different types of information in consistent formats throughout the document?
In our next blog entry we’ll look at ways for you to help your users find the information they need.