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ATD Blog

Better Writing Makes Better Learning

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

In the current landscape of compressed language—text messaging replacing emails, emojis replacing text messages—it has become a guessing game to navigate the minefield of contemporary communication styles.

In instructional design and training delivery, our ability to communicate effectively and efficiently is imperative to ensuring our learners walk away with new skills. Our writing comprises every component of the learner’s experience, and as instructional designers we leverage words in every phase of ADDIE, from our needs analysis report to our design document, to the learning program materials and our evaluation tools. Learning how to engage your audience with your words is not just about word selection; it encompasses language, formatting, rhetorical devices, the art of persuasive writing, and rhetorical appeals.

I’ve been a writer for most of my life, so the playground of words and language has always intrigued me—from the ways in which we can select the right words at the right time to delivering them with the right impact. As ISD professionals, we aim to inform, persuade, express, and entertain various audiences (stakeholders, team members, participants) with our writing.
Always keep these rules in mind when creating and delivering your materials:

Be Intentional With Language

We wouldn’t develop a learning program without first spending time constructing learning objectives and identifying our target audience. Well, the same rules apply when developing our writing. Know who you are writing for and why you are writing for them. Are you looking to persuade, gain buy-in, teach new skills, or solidify an agreement? Be intentional with your words. Consider point of view, rhetorical devices, and ways of appealing to your audience that can build engagement, like using colloquial language and writing like you speak.

Prioritize Concision Over Clutter

Simplify your sentences. Clutter in communication occurs when you use too much “fancy language” and too many filler phrases. There are tricks to being economical with language. For instance, the word “just” is often used as a filler word. Check an email or an old design document and highlight every instance of the word “just.” Often, you will find omitting the word doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. In some cases, it’s filler. Excluding excess provides more clarity and helps learners manage cognitive load.

Take a Crash Course in Self-Editing 101

The fine art of self-editing is an acquired and practiced skill. Knowing when to cut, restructure, or flesh out an idea is something that comes with practice. One key is keeping your empathy hat on and thinking about your audience as you edit. Sometimes we have a lot to say, but our audience is focused on what they need to know, not all there is to know. With a little practice, you’ll be able to spot how to elevate your writing from good to great. For instance, I had a great paragraph in this article about my nephew and his introduction to language with the utterance of his first word, but I would have had that in for me, not you. So, you’ll have to get that story another time.

Remember: Presentation Is Everything

Presentation is everything (yes, it’s worth repeating). Good writing is only as good as its formatting. How you present what you’re saying is equally as important as what you’re saying. Write to the appropriate level of your audience and use empathy to understand the ways in which they need to receive information in terms of both order and visuals. For example, I use the Mager Model to construct my learning objectives for a learning program. This allows me to see the who, what, and how of the program I’m developing for my fellow designers as well as my stakeholders. When I go to write a course description that will be used for marketing purposes, I have to recognize that my audience and my intention have shifted; therefore, so should my words.


When we were first introduced to words, we were given tools and resources. We had handwriting practice paper that told us how tall or how short each letter should be. We memorized lists of vocabulary to expand our personal word bank. We had rules for our practice of writing. Some of us loved it; some of us tried to get through it. Regardless of your relationship with words, they are an effective part of our daily communications—so make sure they shine.

For a deeper dive into this topic, join me for ATD's Writing for Instructional Design and Training Certificate Program.

About the Author

Carrie Addington is the senior manager of learning experience and facilitator development at ATD and facilitates a variety of ATD Education programs. She is a talent development leader, facilitator, and people development coach with more than 12 years of experience in facilitating large-scale training and developing outcome-based learning experiences that aim to inform, involve, inspire, and impact. Carrie is passionate about using her love of language and the arts to work with individuals on establishing deeper connections with their daily work. Carrie has worked with a wide variety of business segments, including retail, beauty, education, and nonprofits, and has worked with C-level executives, directors, managers, and high potentials.

Carrie has delivered on topics ranging from energetic accountability, leadership, and great feedback to cross-generational communication, resolving conflict, and facilitation skills. She is a part of the coaching network with the prominent, global executive leadership and management company, the Mind Gym, and is a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach. As a certified ATD Master Trainer and ATD Master Instructional Designer, Carrie is knowledgeable about both the development and delivery of outcome-based learning programs.

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Hi Carrie,
This read hit home for me. I have always found writing to be difficult and an area in which I am always looking to improve. Thanks for the suggestions and reminders!
You're most welcome Nikki. Thank you for reading!
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I usually curate articles of interest however; writing is not a fully developed skill. Before archiving articles, I often rework them for more clarity. Writers often add additional thoughts that contribute very little. Sometimes sentences require a reduction in size for more clarity. In addition, I find lots of run on sentences that makes reading much more difficult. I often use MS Word’s readability statistics tool.
Hi Rene! Yes, the readability statistics tool can be quite helpful. I love your approach of reworking for clarity before archiving articles. Thanks for sharing.
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I also use the readability statistics in Word - I'm glad to see someone else does! I use these to weed out instances of passive voice wherever I can.
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Thanks Carrie. This is a timely article from my perspective, as I intend to give my first formal presentation in quite some time. Being intentional with words, reducing clutter and editing from the perspective of the audience are all great reminders.
Thank you Jim! I'm glad it's timely and helpful for you.
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