My writing rules for learning materials

As an instructional designer, I design and develop heaps of learning materials. You can wake me up for any new exciting project. It’s the creative process of writing that I love most. I even started writing blogs, voluntarily! A few years ago, I’d have laughed at you when you’d suggest I should start writing blogs. Now, I write blogs to share whatever I think is useful about my work.

Still, sometimes I struggle when I’m writing. Why? English is not my first language, meaning that I need to work harder on getting it right. On the other hand, it helps me to write in plain English which is a huge bonus when writing learning materials. (Yes, I’m a ‘glass half full’ person.)

So, how do I ensure my writing makes sense? Let me share my basic ‘rules’ for writing learning materials (and blogs).

1. Conversational tone

According to Mayer’s ‘Personalization Principle’ (2021), people learn better when you write texts in a conversational style. So, start writing as if you’re talking to the learner! Contractions also help to get a more informal conversational tone.

Say, you’d like to introduce the learning objectives for a writing skills course. What would work better?

  • After this course, the learner should be able to describe and apply different ways to improve their writing skills.
  • Curious what you can learn in this course? You’ll get the chance to improve your writing skills with lots of examples, practical tips and hands-on activities.

As a learner, I’d prefer to read the second sentence. It feels like someone is talking to me, not some distant voice. And it sounds much more fun too.

2. Active voice

I tend to use a passive voice in writing. I blame my career start in the legal sector, where formal writing and an academic style are common. Therefore, I need to remember myself, repeatedly to use an active voice. An active voice is easier to read and often leads to shorter sentences. It’s also how we talk naturally. Let’s look at an example with the passive voice first, followed by the active voice.

Passive voice: The online course was wrapped up by the facilitator with a fun summary activity.
Active voice: The facilitator wrapped up the online course with a fun summary activity.

3. Short sentences

Shorter sentences increase the readability of your texts. When you’re reviewing your text, actively search for sentences which can be split in two. For example, if your sentence includes two independent clauses, cut the sentence in two.
An example: ‘I’ve enrolled in an elearning course and I’m looking forward to learning more about the authoring tools available.’
Change this into: ‘I’ve enrolled in an elearning course. I’m looking forward to learning more about the authoring tools available.’

4. Readability

I just mentioned readability. Most of my writing rules will increase readability. But what should you aim for? Try to write for a person in grade 7. Then most people will be able to read and understand your texts without too much effort.
There are several readability scores. If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find free and paid services. This blog scored 7th grade on after shortening a few sentences.

5. Avoid jargon

I know, it’s hard to avoid jargon! If you need to use certain terminology, explain it when you start using the word for the first time. And always write the term in full before using an abbreviation. You could also provide learners with a glossary. They’ll love you for it.

6. Punctuation

You could have seen this one coming: punctuation. Correct punctuation increases the readability. My mum tends to write text messages without punctuation. They can be hard to decipher!
Punctuation shows the learner where to pause. It allows the writer to emphasise parts of the text. Punctuation can also change the meaning of a sentence.

Compare, for example:

  • The mother, said the son, is a true example of a life-long learner.
  • The mother said the son is a true example of a life-long learner.

Did you notice the difference?

7. Text structure

My final point is about structure. Structuring your text is as essential as your writing itself. It’ll guide the readers through the text and show what’s important.

To structure your text, you could use:

  • Plenty of white space
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Bullet points
  • Numbered lists, etc.

More to come

There you go, seven tips to improve the readability of your learning materials. And now you probably think … great, but how would I do all of this? I’ve got a few tools to share with you in my next blog.

Reference: Richard E. Mayer, Multimedia Learning, 3rd edition (Cambridge University Press, 2021), p. 305.

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