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Part 2: Writing Skills for Instructional Design—Widely Used, Under-Acknowledged

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Wed Feb 22 2023

Part 2: Writing Skills for Instructional Design—Widely Used, Under-Acknowledged
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In this two-part series, we will explore best practices for writing at every stage in the instructional design process. Effective writing ensures that training materials are both effective and instructionally sound.

Regardless of your instructional design model—ADDIE, Agile, backward design, or SAM methods—an important facet of our work is soliciting input from stakeholders and members of our target audience. Throughout the learning design process, we must ask if our materials are relevant, accurate, and engaging. What we often neglect to ask is if they are well-written. Perhaps we assume that others will point out typos or places where our content is unclear. Maybe we don’t know how to ask for feedback on our written communications. But the onus is on us both to elevate our writing and solicit such feedback.

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Here are a dozen ways to assess your writing. You can use these tips and share them with reviewers:

  • Typos: These can cause learners minor annoyance and result in larger problems if typos distort your intended meaning.

  • Incomplete sentences: Omitted words can lead to extraneous load.

  • Run-on sentences: Having several phrases connected with and, but, or or can cause your learners to lose focus and dilute your meaning.

  • Redundancy: Learners have limited time and attention. Use as few words as possible to get your point across.

  • Sophisticated vocabulary: Sometimes we think that we need to use professional, or “fancy,” language. Keep your writing style conversational.

  • Jargon, idioms, and acronyms: Avoiding your field or company’s jargon can be challenging, but remember that not everyone is familiar with these terms or shortcuts. L&D professionals know, for example, what’s meant by “the SME helped the ID with the KSAs,” but we need to avoid this shorthand when producing learning documents. Idioms like “that’s a hard needle to thread” or “out in left field” are especially hard for second-language learners.

  • Negative language: Instead of writing about what you can’t do, use words that describe what you should do. Whenever possible, avoid words like never, not, or don’t

  • Lack of agreement: It can be jarring when items are out of alignment; pronouns must match nouns in number. (For example, “The company has a strong commitment to its people,” not “their people.”) Subjects must also align with verbs in number. (Say, “There are way too many things on our plates,” not “there is too many things.”) And all verbs should match in tense. (Use “As soon as she sent the agenda, she turned off her computer and put away her files,” not “sent the agenda, turned off the computer, and puts away her files.”)

  • Gendered pronouns: Use inclusive, gender-neutral pronouns— like they and their—whenever possible.

  • Passive voice: Active voice makes it clear who is doing what. (“The reader will press the button.”) Passive voice is more ambiguous. (“The button is pressed.”) Don’t leave your learners guessing. It’s confusing and distracts from your content.

  • Word usage errors: Check out lists of common misused word pairs like affect and effect. It’s important to use these words correctly so learners aren’t confused.

  • Confusing construction: Try reading your sentences out loud to avoid confusing sentence construction. For instance, does “I’m going to propose some times when we can meet on Saturday” mean you’re going to propose times on Saturday that work to meet, or that on Saturday you will propose times to meet?

Editing Your Work

Don’t solely rely on a mechanized grammar checker to spot these errors. It’s best to have another set of eyes on all of your materials. When reviewing your own work, separate the process from the actual writing. To do this:

  • Read what you’ve written aloud.

  • Start reading from the bottom of the document.

  • Review each sentence separately.

  • Scan the written document several times, looking for one specific type of error at a time.

  • Don’t write and edit at the same time.

Just like we pilot our instructor-led learning programs, we should get in the habit of piloting our written materials, regardless of the format. And when we can’t get additional eyes on our materials, we can train ourselves to spot common errors.

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