In last week’s post, I shared five general guidelines for using plain language to improve learning outcomes. This week, I get into the nitty-gritty with four specific tips to make your instructional writing clearer and more engaging.
Most people skim rather than read every word, particularly in online media. In fact, a study by the University of Bath found that people are more likely to read information at the beginning of paragraphs and pages. Writing short paragraphs in your instructional writing helps ensure that learners read more of the content.
Focus on one specific topic or idea in each paragraph. Also, white space helps with reading comprehension, so use that return button freely!
Your English teachers may have told you that a paragraph must have at least five sentences. However, writing for instruction is not the same as writing an essay. You don’t necessarily need to include a topic sentence, a few sentences about the topic, and a summary sentence. You just need to get your point across.
It’s even okay if a paragraph has only one sentence!
Using short sentences in your instructional writing reduces cognitive load and helps learners process the information more easily. The more complex your subject matter, the shorter the sentences should be.
To help with readability, keep the subject, verb, and object close together. Adding modifiers and phrases between these essential parts makes the sentence more difficult to understand.
Let’s look at an example of a wordy sentence we can tighten up by moving or deleting words that come between the essential parts of the sentence—the subject, verb, and object—which are bolded in this example.
In the event that an employee requests a transfer, the supervisor, at his or her sole discretion and upon written notice to the HR Director, must approve or deny, by entering a notice of approval or denial into the system within 14 days of receipt, the transfer request.
If an employee requests a transfer, the supervisor must approve or deny it in the system within 14 days and provide written notice to the HR Director.
In the original example, the subject is “the supervisor,” the verb is “must approve or deny,” and the object is “the transfer request.” Notice how many words come between these essential parts of the sentence? In the revised example, the object has been replaced by “it” to reduce repetition, and all the essential parts are together.
Don’t try to impress learners with big words or authoritative-sounding phrases. Be intentional in your word choices, and look for ways to shorten sentences where possible.
The federal plain language guidelines emphasize that the present tense is the simplest and strongest form of a verb, so use the present tense whenever it makes sense to do so. Consider this example.
This section describes actions that would be required for supervisors submitting personnel transfer requests.
This section tells you how to submit personnel transfer requests.
The revised sentence not only changes the verb tense but also speaks directly to the reader, which was a tip shared in last week’s post.
Another way to improve readability is to reduce prepositional phrases, which often add unnecessary bulk and make sentences harder to read. Can you think of one-word replacements for each prepositional phrase in this list?
Answers: 1: now, 2: about, 3: if, 4: to, 5: think
Now let’s look at a few examples of how to tighten up wordy sentences by removing some prepositional phrases. (Earn some nerdy bonus points for recognizing the movie/book references!)
Using fewer words is not always the best solution if it means replacing multiple words with one, less common word. For example, saying “heretofore” instead of “before now” is not good use of plain language for instructional writing.
Prepositional phrases aren’t the only culprit in wordy sentences. Consider these additional examples.
A few years ago, a local TV news station reported about a political candidate who was caught on camera stealing his opponent’s campaign signs. The candidate issued a statement saying, “Sometimes in the heat and rush of a campaign, mistakes are made.” Notice how he didn’t say, “I made a mistake.”
Don’t write like a politician speaks. Using the passive voice (“mistakes are made”) doesn’t tell you who did the action and can make your writing unclear. Use the active voice to make it clear who’s doing what. Use action verbs and put the “doer” first.
My favorite tip for identifying the passive voice comes from Rebecca Johnson (@johnsonr), who tweeted the following tip in 2012.
Try inserting “by zombies” after the verb. If the sentence make sense, you’re using the passive voice. Try it out in these examples:
It’s okay to use the passive voice occasionally if you don’t know who did the action (or it’s unimportant) or if you want to stress the object rather than the action. However, the more active voice you use in your writing, the clearer and more engaging it will be.
In this post, I shared four tips for using plain language in your instructional writing. The graphic provides a summary of these tips, plus the five I shared last week.
Share your writing tips or questions in the comments!
Here are some resources to help you improve your instructional writing:
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