I was at a meeting with a client (a big Aussie company), presenting the draft of a document I’d just completed for them. We (that’s me and the team I wrote the document for) were at the stage of socialising the document within the organisation.
Considering what was presented, I was somewhat taken aback (to put it mildly) that the comment about the document’s length was the first piece of feedback we received.
Unfortunately, lengthy documents immediately set expectations for readers — negative expectations.
So how long should a document be?
Well, how long is a piece of string?
Some documents just need to be long
The document — a combination of policy and process — wasn’t introducing anything new.
It was presenting the policies and processes in a new way (rather gorgeously, I might add), replacing four existing documents (which, by the way, totalled 89 pages), and formally documenting another process that hadn’t been written down.
Obviously, not everyone was happy it was 118 pages long (and, gasp! … it was growing as the review cycle continued).
The issue was that the document had different audiences.
The document was important to the team I was developing it for. Being responsible for a critical piece of the company’s technology infrastructure, the team needed to clearly explain a whole lot of stuff that a lot of different people needed to know.
Some of the information was applicable to everyone; a lot of the information wasn’t. But all of the information was applicable to someone, and so all of it had to be written down.
And it needed to be documented for internal and external audit, too.
I know that people just want the information that’s applicable to them … on one page … but seriously, do they really think that’s possible and that they’re the only ones who’ll be using the document?
Clearly, they do.
So how can a document’s author keep everyone happy?
It’s a writer’s job to make sure policy and process documents aren’t totally boring
Let’s face it, policy and process documents aren’t generally a riveting read.
As writers, it’s our job to make them as interesting and usable as possible.
It’s not practical to create separate documents to satisfy the needs of various audiences (even when they petulantly insist upon it).
Yes, this particular document was long, but it wasn’t expected to be read cover to cover. It’s a reference document to be used when needed.
(Ironically, and despite complaints about the length, the same PM was upset that certain information wasn’t included, which would have made the document even longer! The reason the information wasn’t included was because it’s stuff the service providers he was so concerned about are expected to know.)
Consider the lifespan of your policy and process documents — they warrant TLC
The documents that explain the way our businesses operate — the ones that contain policies and processes — potentially have enterprise-wide audiences, and they’re living documents which evolve as the organisation evolves.
They’re not like project documents which have specific audiences who use the documents for a finite period of time. Nor are they like business reports where there’s generally a wider, but still fairly specific, audience and period of usefulness.
Process and policy documents need to be written for the whole organisation with consideration of their longevity.
A great-looking document is just as important as a well-written one
The client manager I reported to, loved the document, but for a reason he described as ‘shallow’. He loved the colour-coded sections and the general look of the document.
I used colour and layout to make it (I hope) more enjoyable to use and to make information more accessible. I believe it’s those very things which:
- engage users
- make content easy to navigate
- lessen any negative perceptions related to the document’s length.
A great-looking (and well-written) document is going to be used more than one that is just page after page of black and white … no matter how well-written.
Valuable content is lost when it fails to address the needs of its audience. What’s the point of writing a document if it’s just going to sit on a shelf?
Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re saving time by documenting as little as you think you need to
It might make sense to keep a document brief to get it written and make it palatable to read, but is it actually going to explain everything it needs to?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to determine how long these types of documents should be.
Documents need to be as long as they need to be.
With proper organisation change management, my big fat policy and process document gained wide acceptance. In fact, other parts of the business wanted their processes documented in a similar way.
So remember, it’s not just what’s inside that counts. How it’s presented matters, too.
What’s important is:
- developing great-looking, well-structured documents filled with engaging content
- presenting the content in varying levels of detail, with various ways to navigate to it
- socialising the document with its audiences and explaining how to use it.
You see, it’s all in the zhuzhing.