Writing for Instructional Design: A TLDC Event Recap

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This recap of TLDC's Community Day: Writing for Instructional Design, contains tips and advice for instructional writing.

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

Introduction

TLDC’s Community Day on Friday was all about writing for instructional design. Whether you’re writing voiceover scripts, instructional scenarios, process documentation, or job aids, you’ll find some helpful tips and advice in this recap for improving your instructional writing. And be sure to check out the recordings.

Instructional Writing Tip 1: Write Like You Talk

Raise your hand if you have an Instant Pot. How did you learn how to use it?

If you were learning to use it all over again, which of these options would you choose?

  1. Read the 30-page instruction manual that came with the appliance
  2. Watch a 2-minute YouTube video explaining the basics
  3. Ask a friend who has the same appliance how to use it
  4. Figure it out as you go—what’s the worst that can happen?

Most people wouldn’t choose option #1. Even if you personally read instruction manuals cover to cover (and yeah… I’m that person), that’s because you’re a learning nerd. And most of your learners aren’t like you. They want the easy route. The one where they get to learn from someone who talks like a real person and not like some legal team’s hand puppet.

The personalization principle tells us that “people learn better when e-learning environments use a conversational style of writing or speaking.” (Source: e-Learning and the Science of Instruction).

The speakers at Friday’s event emphasized that we need to write the same way that we talk. This is especially important to remember if you’ve just come out of a master’s or PhD program. You may have learned a style of academic writing that just doesn’t work when writing for instructional design. Or if you have a background in HR, your writing may naturally lean toward “legalese,” which won’t be as easy to understand or learn from as conversational writing.

Instructional Writing Before-and-After Examples

Here are some before-and-after examples the presenters shared. 

Before

It is equally important that there should be no seasonal changes in the procedures, as, although the risk of cold and flu viruses is more often met in winter, it can be equally risky during the summer months.

After

Use the same procedures all the time because cold and flu viruses are risky during winter or summer.

(Shared by Jen Yaros)

Before

It is important for health care providers to screen, identify, and treat patients that may be at risk for an alcohol or substance use disorder because screening patients offers you a chance to identify problems early and possibly prevent a more serious alcohol use disorder from developing.

After

Why does it matter if you as a health care provider screen, identify, and treat patients who may be at risk for an alcohol or substance use disorder?

Screening all your patients offers you a chance to identify problems early. If you catch issues early, you might prevent more serious alcohol use disorders from developing.

(Shared by Christy Tucker)

Notice how asking a question and answering it contributes to the conversational tone in the second example.

Pro Tip: Starting a sentence with “It is important” never conveys any sense of real importance. 

"Use short sentences so the learner isn't getting into the detours in their on-ramp to learning." Kim Lindsey

When you’re writing voiceover scripts, the number one rule Christy Tucker emphasized in her session is to read your scripts aloud. This will help you catch problems like awkward words or punctuation (such as e.g. and his/her), as well as long sentences that make it hard for the voiceover artist to catch a breath.

This tip is also helpful for other types of writing. Reading aloud can help you identify the need for varied sentence structure and transitions. As Lisa Crockett pointed out in the chat, good writing is a lot like music. It has a rhythm to it that’s interesting and makes you want to keep going.

Instructional Writing Tip 2: Simplify Your Language

Let’s face it: English can be a very confusing language. Consider the various meanings of the word “fast” in these examples:

  • The car was very fast. (It moved at a high rate of speed.)
  • The clock runs five minutes fast. (The time is five minutes ahead.)
  • The door held fast and would not open. (It’s immovable.)
  • He is on a fast for Ramadan. (He’s abstaining from food and drink.)

With one word having so many meanings, how do you make sure learners can easily understand your intended meaning in your instructional writing?

Simplified Technical English (STE) was created to solve this very problem. As Jen Yaros explained, it’s a controlled vocabulary used in the aerospace industry to standardize documentation.

STE consists of about 850 words, which were carefully chosen to help reduce the risk of miscommunication and confusion, particularly for non-native English speakers. Each word has only one acceptable meaning. For example, you’d use the word “finish” only as a noun. If you want to use the verb form, you’d use the word “complete” instead.

Although STE began in the aerospace industry, many other fields are now adopting it. It makes information easier for everyone to understand and can significantly reduce translation costs.

If you’d like to learn more about STE, follow these instructions to receive a copy of the STE Manual:

  1. Go to https://www.asd-ste100.org/request.html
  2. Scroll down and select the “Request Copy of Issue 8” button. It will download an Excel file.
  3. Open the Excel file and type your information into the spreadsheet
  4. Email the spreadsheet to stemg@asd-ste100.org.

STE is not simple English, and it’s not the same as the U.S. government’s plain language guidelines. STE emphasizes keeping information simple, specific, and consistent.

Side Note: Another takeaway from Jen’s session is that when you’re teaching a subject your learners might find dry, pop culture references can liven it up! I’m always down for some good Star Wars memes. <<<These are for the teachers and former teachers among us.

Instructional Writing Tip 3: Be Empathetic

Kim Lindsey discussed cognitive empathy—imagining what someone else might be thinking or feeling—and its importance to instructional writing. As Kim said, we have to remember that we’re not writing to institutions, or roles, or people en masse. We are writing to individual people.

She suggested writing personas to represent various learners and posting their pictures near your workspace so you can keep your learners front and center in your mind.

"Always remember what it's like not to know." Kim Lindsey

In addition to writing for learners, we also write for project team members and client stakeholders. We need to consider their point of view. If you’re handing over a storyboard to a client, it may be a good idea to walk them through how to read it. One super useful tip Kim shared is that she grays out notes to internal team members (such as programmers) in storyboards to de-emphasize that information when clients review them.

What other simple things can we do to make our products more usable to our various audiences? If you have some tips, I’d love to learn about them. Leave a comment!

Instructional Writing Tip 4: Get Inside Your Character's Brain

Dr. Nicole Pappaioannou Lugara’s session focused on getting inside the brains of the characters you write. She facilitated an activity in which we (the participants) wrote part of a scenario involving two characters based on a situation Nicole presented. It was amazing how much information was revealed about the characters through those few lines of dialogue. That’s called characterization, folks, and it’s an extremely effective way to “show, don’t tell.”

When writing a scenario, consider these three things:

  • Learning goals (What needs to happen?)
  • Emotional impact (What do you want to make people feel?)
  • Medium of delivery (Where’s it playing?)

Then build your scenario using three ingredients: characters, environment, and events.

Scenario Ingredients: characters, environment, and events.

Nicole suggested we ask ourselves, “what happens if I drop these characters into this environment, and these things happen?”

Side Note: If your job entails virtual facilitation, I highly recommend watching the recording of Nicole’s session to see an expert facilitator in action.

Instructional Writing Tip 5: Perfection Kills Excellence

That heading is a quote from Nicole, who talked about how dialogue can be useful in learning because it creates emotional impact, makes data more tangible, and demonstrates empathy for learners.

I had a few takeaways from Nicole’s session, but the big one for any writer is the importance of the shitty first draft (or SFD, if you want to be more polite). Okay, Nicole didn’t use that exact language—it’s a term coined by Anne Lamott in her fabulous book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and she says all good writers write them.

If writing dialogue and scenarios is scary to you, or you’re not sure you’ll be good at, give yourself permission to be bad at it for a while. That’s the only way to get better. Before you know it, you’ll surprise yourself with how good your scenarios are.

Side Note: The same lesson applies to singing, or dancing, or painting, or whatever else you long to do. Give yourself permission to do it badly.

"Allow yourself time to play. Good writing almost always comes from the process of letting yourself do some bad writing." Nicole Pappaioannou Lugara

The time aspect is critical. A highly creative approach, such as a branching scenario, will take more time than a straightforward (boring) procedural approach. Factor in extra time for brainstorming—and for revising SFDs—when you create the project timeline. It’s hard to be creative on a tight deadline.

Summary

To review, my five takeaways from Friday’s TLDC Community Day are:

  1. Write like you talk.
  2. Simplify your language.
  3. Be empathetic.
  4. Get inside your character’s brain.
  5. Perfection kills excellence.

Resources

Below are some resources for instructional writing that were mentioned during the event, along with a few others I recommend. Enjoy!

Be sure to watch the session recordings.

Session Handouts

Speakers

Cool Tools

Plain Language Resources

Books

NOTE: If you choose to purchase books from the above links, I will earn a small amount, which helps to support this blog and does not affect your price.

Courses

Two of the speakers have related courses you might be interested in. I am not affiliated with these courses and don’t get any kickback or other benefits from listing them here. Having participated in another program with these two on the instructional team, I can say they’re talented learning professionals who know their stuff.  

Upcoming TLDC Events

Don’t miss these exciting events coming soon from TLDC:

And just to be clear, I’m a member of TLDC. That’s it. I don’t receive anything from writing these recaps or recommending their events. I just really love the community!

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