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SOP Writing Guidelines

A sheet of paper with safety rules and a pen on it.

Businesses increasingly realize the need for Standard Operating Procedures to meet compliance, improve quality, and drive efficiency. But simply having Standard Operating Procedures is not enough, and inadequate SOPs can have a negative impact on your company. Following these SOP writing guidelines is the key to ensuring that your procedures are understood and adopted by your employees.

Following documented procedures may appear simple, but if these are poorly written, it can lead to deviations in your processes, inability to meet regulatory compliance, and the quality of your product or service can be detrimentally affected. Poorly written SOPs can be the result of steps with too much content, a failure to formalize procedural changes in current versions of SOPs, lack of proper formatting, not writing procedures in accordance with regulation compliance, not getting the input of those who perform the tasks, and gaps in your processes. Any of these failures could cause your SOPs to be of little use to your employees or perhaps followed but without the desired results.

This article will cover how you can use workflow process charts to make your operating procedures clear before writing your SOPs, how to write them from the perspective of those who will do the work in a way that is easy to adopt and follow, proper SOP formatting, and best practices for distribution and comprehension. But first, let’s discuss the difference between SOPs and Work Instructions.

The Difference Between SOPs and Work Instructions

SOPs are a concise outline highlighting steps to be taken and who should take them. They are able to serveas a quick reminder when a task is about to be performed. Because of their clear and concise layout, they become an excellent onboarding tool for streamlining the training of new hires.

Work instructions are the detailed steps of a procedure, showing how work is to be done. Work instructions break down the steps one-by-one to explain exactly how to perform an activity.

For example, when writing an SOP about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one step would be to open the jar of jelly. But a work instruction would tell a person how to open the jar or where to get it. Work instructions are more granular. The level of detail included will vary depending on the complexity of a work instruction. Understanding this is key to developing SOPs that are easy to follow.

Determine the format that your team would get the most benefit from. Whether your SOPs take on the form of step-by-step instructions that are more granular or narrative, following the guidelines below will ensure that you build a robust set of SOPs that will allow your team to gain efficiency and productivity.

Create Workflow Process Charts

Missing steps or roles in business processes are gaps that need to be closed. Effectively utilize process charts and maps to make procedures clear. Business process mapping visually displays every step in the process that must be completed and the sequence in which the task must be completed from start to finish.

First, identify the role responsible for each task in the process. Next, create a workflow process outlining these roles and individuals to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Review the resulting process with your teams and other stakeholders for accuracy.

Write SOPs for the End-User

Having verified all the roles and tasks required to complete a procedure and understanding the difference between SOPs and work instructions, we will discuss some best practices or guidelines for writing SOPs for the end-user, the individuals responsible for doing the work.

Write Using a Simple, Concise, Step-by-Step Format

Limit each step to a single action and use standard terms and short sentences wherever possible. Be as concise as you can without leaving anything out to accomplish a specific task. Mapping out your entire procedure ahead of time will ensure this.

Write in the Active Voice, Presenting the Main Idea First

Make your SOPs actionable by using a verb in the present tense at the beginning of each procedure step. The passive voice obscures important ideas, making it harder for employees to follow SOPs.

  • Active voice: Use the handles to lift the object.
  • Passive voice: The object should be lifted with the handles.

Avoid Ambiguity

Do not use wording that is open to more than one interpretation which leaves room for deviations. Clarify ambiguous language or terminology not known by employees performing the tasks. State what needs to be done, not what should or may be done, to provide consistent direction.

Well-Written SOPs Must Be Easy to Read

Creating SOPs that are clear, concise, and easy to consume is vital; otherwise, they won’t be used. Use relevant images or graphics in addition to a concise, simple step-by-format as described above. This breaks up the text and helps you avoid cramming information together. A format with lots of white space is easy on the eyes, resulting in operating procedures that are easy to follow.

A Model Format for an Effective SOP


The page header should include the title of the SOP, area of use, issue date, and last revision date. Include the name of the organization and owning department or group if applicable.


Clearly describe the intended purpose of the SOP in no more than two sentences. This is also demonstrated in the image above.

Scope of SOP

Define who and what the SOP applies to and what is considered outside the scope. The scope might be dependent on other SOPs and roles to be defined and referenced. Determine whether these should be included in the current Standard Operating Procedures.

Using a flowchart to clearly define these dependencies and roles, as described in the earlier section, can help you make this determination.

References and Related Documents

Provide the end user with supporting materials and documents to reference, e.g., flowcharts, work instructions, safety precautions, pictures or diagrams, forms, and labels to increase their understanding and give further explanations that can be accessed as needed. Applicable regulatory guidelines required to understand and follow the procedures can also live here.

Supporting documents allow the end-user to maintain focus on the SOP itself without feeling overwhelmed while completing the task.


Define terminology and acronyms not known by those using the SOP. Use definitions consistent with those outlined in regulations and industry standards. Clear and consistent definitions across your company’s SOPs will satisfy regulatory inspectors without the need for further inspection.

Roles and Responsibilities

With the assistance of your completed process flowchart, list the personnel, departments, groups, contractors, subcontractors, or any other roles affected by the SOP. If too many roles are involved in a procedure, it may be necessary to break it down into multiple SOPs.


Above all, write in simple steps that can be followed by the end-user and allow them to complete their assigned task. Be as detailed and precise as possible, and include all steps required by regulations. For each step, describe specifically what to do and state who should do it, if more than one role is involved. Relevant imagery can be used, especially where the written word won’t suffice.

Health and safety warnings should accompany applicable steps within the process. These warnings can be noted on the same line in the second column. If there are too many steps, consider splitting sub-tasks into separate SOPs that reference each other.


These are areas that contain additional information for reference, such as safety guidelines, workflow diagrams, or other supporting documentation.

Version History

During SOP creation,Keep track of changes made to the SOP and why they were necessary. This is critically important for heavily regulated industries where your staff only needs to work from the updated version.

Approval Signatures

Relevant department heads and quality managers who review and approve your SOPs are required to provide approval signatures.

Create a Plan for SOP Distribution and Comprehension

Your business’ well-written, approved SOPs must be available to your workers and accessible from an online central location for proper distribution. Create a well-designed plan for this. In addition, develop a plan to provide comprehensive training and testing to ensure that new or updated procedures are understood and can be followed. Allow your employees to participate in the process.

Proper SOP writing begins with clarifying each step in your processes and the roles to complete them. It also involves the understanding that operating procedures are will be simple, clear, and concise instructions. Armed with this guidance, you can implement SOP best practices with the end user in mind.  

By combining the above guidelines with proper training, your business will meet compliance, improve quality, and drive efficiency with well-crafted SOPs that your team will be happy to use. Contact SOPheroes to learn more about how we can help document and optimize your processes, improve your SOPs and ensure compliance and quality deliverables for your company.

Lastly, You can also checkout: Standard Operating Procedures Checklist


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