Do you think most learners actively read and engage with the text in your eLearning courses? Or do they skim through walls of text just to click through the slides and get to the “good” parts (animations, videos, etc.)?
Words are a pillar of good design. To grab learners at “Hello,” we must start designing our words. Like many writers, I find certain aspects of writing and proofreading are excruciating. Deadlines and client constraints cause me to take shortcuts. Careful revision is sometimes the easy sacrifice. But I found an answer, and in this article I offer it to you. You can put it to work today, using a tool you already own.
Writing and feng shui
In our field, things change fast. More often than not, we juggle multiple aspects of our projects. Content writing can become little more than a “copy and paste” job, based on what subject-matter experts provide. After all, writing and proofreading are not always quite as much fun as creating a visually attractive slide, a great interaction, a video, or even a game.
To leave our learners with something of substance, we need to pay more attention to our text, whether that’s text on a slide, instructions for a learning interaction, or something else. If we want learners to actually read what we write, we must write, read, and revise. Editing does not have to be drudgery.
“Feng shui” is an ancient practice based on selecting the optimal arrangement to encourage positive energy flow. Interior designers have used this phrase to describe perfect placements of objects and surfaces. Feng shui, though often thought of as a philosophy that can be applied to architecture and interior design, has a message for writers as well. Instructional designers can borrow ideas from feng shui for writing to encourage information flow and keep the learner reading.
Look at your content with an attitude of feng shui. Remove word clutter. Refocus your writing. Where to begin? I want to reintroduce you to your word processing software.
Declutter with find and replace
Many of us, myself included, fall in love with what we write, and love is blind. Lucky for us, MS Word, and every other word processor, has a “find and replace” function. Use “find and replace” to cut through your mind’s ability to ignore writing weak spots. Bruce Ross-Larson, in his book Edit Yourself (see “Reference” at the end of this article), helps content writers find the words and phrases scattered across your work that derail your learner’s engagement. With the help of Larson and other writing mentors we can clean up the clutter.
Five red flags to find and revise
Search your writing and find these five red flags to clean up the clutter.
First look at your titles. Titles are the front door to your content. Well-formatted headlines are inviting while all capitals yell at your guests. As instructional designers we serve the client. Sometimes clients have text-formatting preferences that may not follow grammar standards. Start with a unified style guide combining the client’s wishes with good grammar.
Try this: Headlines or titles have three formats, according to the newest style-guide for digital media, The Yahoo! Style Guide. The editors suggest you choose between sentence case (written like a sentence), all upper case, or title case (capitalize all the words except tiny words: “a,” “an,” “and,” “at,” “but,” “by,” “for,” “in,” “nor,” “of,” “on,” “or,” “so,” “the,” “to,” “up,” and “yet). To create clutter-free writing, use title case. Write a title or headline that draws your learner into the content and be consistent across the slides with your title format.
It can be a problem. While many explanations tell us why it can make writing look primitive, focus on ambiguity. If it does not refer to a specific subject and only to a thought in the writer’s head, we leave too many words with too little meaning. Starting a sentence with “It is . . .” is a warning sign for word clutter.
Try this: Find every instance of it in your text using your word processor’s Search and Replace function. Look at each time you used it in a sentence. Ask: Where is the subject of it? Where is the location of it? What does it mean? Can we cut or reword it?
- There is
There is can be as problematic the word “it.” Expletives, “it is,” “there is,” and “there are,” add unnecessary words and weaken the message. Readers prefer simple subject and verb construction—in that order.
Try this: Search for “There is” or “There are” in your text. See if you can reword by putting the real subject first. According to The Grammar Girl, aka Mignon Fogarty, “The trick to figuring out what verb to use is to find the real subject of the sentence.”
Nominalizations and unnecessary infinitive phrases like the___of and of___the can create word confusion. You want your readers to flow through your eLearning content and learn. Look at your writing and see if you have a sentence like this: In the field of retail sales an associate must learn customer service. Revise, eliminating the/of: A retail sales associate must learn customer service.
Try this: Search your content for the word, “of.” Find how “of” is used and see if you can revise or remove unnecessary words.
- To and
more . . .
Stop writing in circles and be direct. Circumlocution is using many words when a few would do. Instead of: Your manager has the ability to make your work productive. Write: Your manager can make your work productive.
Try this: Look for words or phrases like “to,” “it is,” “that is,” “that are,” “in accordance with,” “on the occasion of,” “at this/at that,” “is ___ to,” “up the,” “out the,” and “who are.” Find and revise redundant phrases into succinct sentences. Never use extra words without adding extra meaning.
Scattered words and phrases hide your word design; it may be time for a writing makeover. Rewriting eLearning content starts by using your word processing tools to spot wordiness. With practice, concise writing will become your natural style. For help rearranging your words and phrases, consult Purdue OWL, Grammar Girl, and Edit Yourself (see “Reference” below).
Brian Carroll, in Writing for Digital Media (see “Reference”), says, “Hemingway described prose not as interior decoration but as architecture.” Feng shui is not so much interior decorating as it is architecture. Architects who use feng shui do so with the intent of building toward positive progressive energy. In the same way, well-constructed content ebbs and flows, providing learners with a satisfying finish.
Barr, C. (ed.) The Yahoo! Style Guide: Writing for an Online Audience. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011.
Carroll, B. Writing for Digital Media. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.
Grammar Girl: Oddness When You Start a Sentence with “There Is”:
Quick and Dirty Tips. 3 June 2011.
Purdue OWL: Conciseness. Undated.
Ross-Larson, Bruce. Edit Yourself:
A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words.
New York: Norton, 1996.
Shaughnessy, M. P. Errors and Expectations:
A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.