At a recent conference I took the opportunity to sit in on Cammy Bean’s great Writing Better Scripts for eLearning presentation. Key messages included reminders to keep it short and snappy, to write the way people talk, to look for the active voice, and to find a narrative thread. It got me thinking about some past work I’d done in teaching others to edit ruthlessly so I thought I’d share some of that here.  

First: Beware the Curse of Knowledge

I wrote about this in June 2010 and figured it would be OK to revisit this image (Figure 1). Before you begin designing, identify the two or three ideas most critical to successful performance on the job. What must the learner know? Start there and build out only as much as necessary. (As opposed to starting on the outside and stuffing as much content as possible into the allotted module size or class time.) I call this “finding your 20 percent,” and have always envisioned it as looking like this (Figure 1)”  

Figure 1:
Find your 20 percent

Finding your 20 percent is made especially challenging by what Chip and Dan Heath, in their excellent book Made To Stick, call the Curse of Knowledge, “The trap of believing everything that you know is important and interesting to your learners.” It’s the outside box in Figure 1, where everything there is to know about a topic resides. And where the most seasoned subject matter experts (SMEs) usually start when you say, “Tell me what you do.” It’s hard to drill down to that smallest central point.

 Cammy reminded me of this when she said, “Find the story in the slide deck.” I recall once being handed a giant pile of “content” for use in management training. The request was for an online course on the organization’s budget processes, formerly offered as a two-day classroom program taught by SMEs. I had a big box of materials and manuals and policies and handouts. I’d struggled with it for weeks when a friend in the accounting office wrapped her arms around it all and said, “Jane, this is what a manager needs to know: If she wants new uniforms for her police officers, or new tires for a Jeep at a state park, or a new wing on a building, or travel money to send her staff to a conference, what words does she need to use and what details will she have to provide and what forms does she need to file?” That was the story in the slide deck. That was the 20 percent. 

What if you had to pay $5 a word?

This is also known as, “The old classified ad trick.” See the difference for yourself in Figures 2 through 4:

Figure 2:
Before—58 words


Cut, then cut again:

Figure 3:
Edit ruthlessly

Figure 4:
After editing—20 words

Another trick for editing ruthlessly? Ask (nicely) someone else to do it. Fresh eyes can often see exactly what to cut where you, standing so close to the material, may not.

Use symbols and abbreviations; shift to a more conversational tone

From this:

  • Results from a survey show that of American adults who are online, nearly three out of four use Facebook daily
  • Facebook users are more trusting than users of other social sites
  • Facebook users have more close relationships

To this:

Nearly 75 percent of American adults online use Facebook daily. They are more trusting than other social site users and have more close relationships.

Ask, don’t tell

Another great bit of advice from Heath & Heath: Try to replace statements with questions. Frame information in such a way as to encourage the learner to think about and even wrestle with the content, not just drink it in. (See also, “Let The Learners Hold the Spoon”).

So instead of, “Company turnover last month ticked up to 19 percent.”

Try, “Why did six of our best employees quit last month?”

“What was your role in that?”

“What can you do to fix it?”

Want more?

I’ve pretty much focused here on ideas related to cutting and editing. Check out Cammy Bean’s slide deck for more ideas on finding a narrative and working in an active, colloquial voice. Also see Connie Malamed’s “10 Types of Writing for eLearning” and of course Heath & Heath’s Made to Stick. Please share your ideas for other resources—and examples—in the comments section.


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