RE: Procedures - Must we use numbered steps?

Subject: RE: Procedures - Must we use numbered steps?
From: "Nuckols, Kenneth M" <Kenneth -dot- Nuckols -at- mybrighthouse -dot- com>
To: "Steven Brown" <stevenabrown -at- yahoo -dot- com>, <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 18 Apr 2006 10:05:13 -0400

Steven Brown asked...

> Hello all,
> We spend a great deal of time formatting numbered
> procedures and the numbered substeps that are often
> embedded within them. (How many times have we
> struggled with Word's autonumbering?) It's become an
> accepted practice that when you write a procedure, you
> use numbers to show the sequence of steps.
> But I wonder, is it really necessary to use numbered
> steps at all? Gordon Meyer's Usable Help blog
> (
> recently discussed what techncial writers might learn
> from recipe writers. While he doesn't raise the issue
> of numbered steps, it struck me that recipes rarely
> use numbered steps at all, yet somehow cookbook
> readers are able to follow a fairly complex sequence
> of tasks.
> So I ask, have you ever considered writing procedures
> without numbers?
> (And please, please. I'm not suggesting that numbered
> procedures should be struck from all technical
> documentation, so please don't raise the typical Space
> Shuttle and nuclear reactor examples to prove a point.
> I'm merely wondering if numbered steps must be used in
> all situations.)

To answer your final query, no--I don't think there would be any
argument that numbered steps are required for ALL situations. In fact, I
find that when I'm providing instructions on procedures, normally find
numbers to be something irritating if the procedure has fewer than about
4 or 5 steps.

When you bring up the example of cookbooks, I'll quibble with your logic
just a tiny bit--in my experience (I'm no Emeril, but I've had to learn
how to make some dishes on my own with the help of recipe books) they
are a cross between "procedural" writing and "expository" writing. Often
times, chefs and cooking authors will throw in descriptions of why
certain ingredients are used, and I've even seen procedures punctuated
by minor history lessons on how certain aromas or flavors came to be
associated with this or that dish.

As much as recipe books may try to "dumb down" a dish, cooking always
has been and always will be a mixture of artistry and procedure. There's
a flair, an eccentricity, and a little bit of creativity that goes into
every dish. And we love it that way--you like one restaurant's version
of "Kung Pao Chicken" better than another's because of the extra veggies
and spices they use.

But most of us writing procedures don't have the luxury of letting our
users be that creative. There's a certain way things have to be done and
a certain order they must do them in order to complete the job
correctly. After all, you can't put the valve springs into the engine
after you put the valve cover back on. For complex procedures, numbering
is (if not essential) then at least a helpful mnemonic for users to
follow along and know where they are in the procedure.

That's just my 2 cents.

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