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  • Rikki Lee

Tips to Tweak Your Writing

If you’re an instructional designer who works a lot with scripts and storyboards, you know the importance of being an expert at composing knowledge-based sentences and paragraphs that learners can understand and retain. To you, writing and editing are as essential as instructing.

If you’re primarily a instructional technologist—adding text, images, shapes and other objects to slides for completing someone else’s storyboards—it might not occur to you to use your own writing and editing skills. But these will come in handy every day. For example, you’ll eventually have to change any misspelled words or grammatical errors when the slides return to you for revision. But you can help identify them as you build the slides by making tracked changes in a Word storyboard or adding comments to a PowerPoint presentation.

One of the earliest blog posts on this site discussed the importance of good writing in instructional design. I offered helpful hints related to basic writing, like watching out for homonyms, limiting the number of bullet points per slide, using italics and so on. Take a few minutes to review it if you want to brush up on the fundamentals.

But let’s get somewhat more advanced right now, with additional items you might want to consider—although you certainly won’t be any less of a writer if you decide to ignore them. These are some overused expressions that make writing boring and repetitive. Call them my “pet peeves”; every writer has their own list. Being alert to overused expressions can help you become more aware of the way you write, question why you wrote what you did, and change it for the better.

These items are trends we’ve identified over the years in instructional and business writing: lack of originality in word usage, tedious sentence structure, unnecessary words, and overall poor editing. Here’s how I see the difference between good and poor writing:

  • The qualities of good writing are a list of six C’s: clear (understandable), correct (accurate), concise (containing only necessary words), compelling (interesting and exciting), cordial (friendly and informal) and coordinated (well-organized and structured).

  • On the other hand, the qualities of poor writing are also a list of six C’s: cloudy (not understandable), clueless (with incorrect information), cluttered (containing unnecessary words), clichéd (containing worn-out expressions), clammy (stilted or overly formal) and clumsy (disorganized or illogical).

Now, here are just three trends to consider changing in your writing:

1. Be inclusive: Do you ever write “he or she” when referring to a single, anonymous person in a sentence, just because you want to include everybody? Or worse, do you always write “he” when referring to any person, because you really liked living in the 20th century? Those older expressions are awkward in our current culture. Use “they,” “them” and “their” instead of “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or hers,” respectively. These can work whether you’re referring to anyone. (But naturally, you’ll refer to a named person with an appropriate pronoun, as in “Steve visited his primary care physician…”)

Nowadays, you’d be correct to write, “Every worker has a responsibility to punch their card at the beginning and the end of their shift.” It might be better to change “every worker” in that sentence into “all workers,” but “their” does just as well for a single person, especially if you continue to use a singular “worker” in subsequent sentences. Usage of “they” is gender-inclusive and removes the age-old problem of whether to use “he” or “he or she” every time or to alternate between them.

2. Take back control: Do you ever write “The software allows you to…” or “The updated feature provides you with…” or “The new policy will ensure that you…”? I quite often see these sentence structures (especially in user manuals) in which passive, inanimate objects turn into active, real participants in our lives. Does the snooze button on your alarm clock really “allow” you to sleep an extra five minutes? No, but your hitting it does.

Of course, software doesn’t “allow” anything, but using it does. Once in a while, inserting an “active passive” in your writing is fine—but not all the time. So, find ways to reconstruct a sentence by taking the power away from the inanimate object and return it to the user, such as “Complying with this policy will ensure that you…” or “With this updated feature, an employee can...”

3. “Have” it your way: Do you ever write, “Have the team complete this step…” or “Have your department hold a meeting each week”? The directorial use of “have” is OK when spoken by busy executives (as in, “Have your secretary call my secretary”). But it’s lazy instructional writing, especially in a facilitator’s guide. Better ways to rephrase those sentences include: “Work with the team in completing the step…” or “Arrange time for your department to hold a meeting...”

"Have” is a weak active verb. And the understood “you” before "have"—the person who makes someone do something—is presented as the focus of the action; instead, it should be as much as possible on the someone and the something. When you use the directorial “have” too frequently in a learning script, you may begin to forget how the team completes the step or what the department needs to do before or during the meeting.

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