Writing Tips for the Instructional Designer (2020 edition)
The task of writing anything substantial usually results in the writer experiencing some degree of stress. Traditionally, the stress level increases with the perceived difficulty of producing the first draft or with the unappealing chore of repeatedly revising subsequent drafts. In other words, writing is stressful all the time, even for some of the most experienced professional writers whose fame or fortune depends on it.
Given this situation, should an instructional design writer's goal be to reduce stress by putting in a low-level effort or repurposing as much older content as possible? I suggest that it should be to make a meaningful impression on learners’ attitudes and behavior that stays with them for a long time. Well-written lessons produce the best learning.
Writing shouldn’t be thought of as a mundane task of stringing together words and punctuation; rather, consider it a dynamic and constantly expanding skill. You might have written many dozens of scripts, storyboards and other materials in your career, but your next project might be so different that it stretches your writing skills. Accept it as a challenge, not something to be afraid of.
Mindfulness and creativity Whether you consider yourself primarily a writer who works as an instructional designer, or an instructional designer who can write, think of writing as the focal point of your job. Although it’s also necessary to know which settings to enable before publishing a SCORM package, how to develop quality interactive knowledge checks, and where to place text on a slide, the most important ID element—writing—requires much more mindfulness and creativity.
Maybe you consider writing as an integral part of your skill set and not something to focus on separately. If that’s the case, you'll still need to know more than what word to use, which sentence structure sounds best, or when and how to punctuate. Regardless of how you view your writing ability, its objective should be to a build a better life for learners and those with whom they live and work.
If you enjoy the writing aspect, you’ll never be bored in your career...because there’s always something new to learn. On the other hand, if you avoid writing so that you can spend more time formatting slides or clicking the right SCORM settings, you might want to look for a new career (something that doesn’t require you to write).
Finally, here are some tips to make your instructional design writing more interesting and enjoyable:
Move step by step: Instead of maintaining a wide-angle view throughout each new writing project—taking its entirety into your brain from start to finish at all times—approach it as a series of steps in a process, and in your mind move one step at a time. For example, focus first on collecting source materials and working with SMEs, then on writing a basic outline, then on expanding the outline, then on writing certain sections first and others next, then on rewriting each section, then on combining the sections to match the outline, then on revising a few more times.
Concentrate on one thing: If it’s feasible with your workload and schedule, take on only one writing project at a time. Don’t switch back and forth to other writing projects during the day, unless it's absolutely necessary. Keeping your mind on one project prevents “cross-contamination”; for example, mistakenly assuming the second project you’re working on needs a character-type narrator because the first one does. Also, you need an organized mind and sufficient time for collecting material and working with SMEs, outlining, writing, rewriting, combining sections, and revising each project. It’s best to proceed with those steps as closely together in time as possible.
Read it aloud: Take for granted that everything you write—slide notes, elearning script, activity instructions, quiz questions, etc.—will be read aloud, either by a voiceover talent, a classroom instructor or a learner. As for the latter, most people read almost everything aloud or silently to themselves; their lips are often moving as their eyes and brains are following along. This is true whether they’re reading slides on their phone, their computer or the training room’s display monitor. So, your writing should be well-structured, clear, concise and easy to follow—as though you're talking directly to people. So, you should read aloud to yourself as you’re revising your writing, confirming that it makes sense to you; otherwise, it might not make sense to narrators, instructors or learners.
Manage time and space: Continually keep track of your time and an awareness of your surroundings. If you’re in writing “like there’s no tomorrow” to meet a deadline or to constantly revise your work, you may suddenly look at the clock to find out that it’s already tomorrow (because you’ve written through the night). You need to stay healthy and alert to maintain your best abilities.
Take a break: Factor frequent breaks into your schedule, lasting from between a few seconds to a few minutes, as well as a longer break now and then. Taking a break, even a short one, refreshes your mind. It gives you the opportunity to step away from your writing, especially when you’re stuck, so that you can return to it with a clear head.
Know when to stop: Revising is an important part of every writing project, and you shouldn’t omit it. After all, the best writing is rewriting. At the same time, you shouldn’t try to reach the "perfect" or the "best" first draft, especially if other people will be providing input. So, make the first draft as error-free as you can; usually, two or three revisions are sufficient. Take a break between each revision. And if you can’t find much text to change on your last revision, you’re probably finished revising.
By practicing these tips, you probably won't become the most rich or famous instructional design writer of the 21st century, but you’ll definitely improve your skills day after day—and enjoy doing it.