As a new practicing instructional designer, I was astonished at the quantity and breadth of writing that was required in this field. Over the years, I’ve needed to write on-screen text, audio scripts, video scripts, training manuals, marketing copy, help documentation and technical explanations. Along the way, I’ve filled in my education gaps through various classes, books and other sources.
So I was pleased to come across Roy’s Writing Tools, a podcast in iTunes University. It features Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, as he reads and discusses key points to improve writing. Here I’ve selected some of Clark’s best tips that are applicable to learning experience designers. In some cases, I’ve modified his tips to apply to our type of work.
Order words for emphasis
Order your words with awareness. Place emphatic words either at the start or end of a sentence or paragraph. If at the end, the period acts as a stop sign—a pause—which magnifies the preceding word. In a paragraph, final words adjoin white space, giving the preceding words greater strength.
Weak example: The faint of heart are not well-suited for project management.
Strong example: Project management is not for the faint of heart.
Use adverbs only when they change the meaning of a verb
Adverbs are meant to enhance a verb, yet writers often select adverbs that are redundant with the verb. For example, in the following phrases, the adverb is redundant to the meaning of the verb it modifies: smiling happily, effortlessly easy, astonishingly amazed. Removing the redundant adverb makes a sentence shorter, stronger and to the point. This is my favorite tip because it’s a quick way to transform weak writing into powerful writing.
Weak example: She smiled happily. (We assume someone is happy when they smile.)
Strong example: She smiled sadly. (Now this is intriguing.)
Set the tempo with varied sentence lengths
Create a tempo through the purposeful use of long and short sentences. Use long sentences to establish a flow and to move things forward. Use short sentences to simplify complex explanations or to create suspense in a scenario. Let sentence length match the content and your purpose.
Go light on the “ing” form of verbs
Use the simple present or past form of verbs rather than the “ing” form. According to Clark, “ing” can weaken a verb for two reasons. First, it adds an additional syllable to the verb and secondly, a series of verbs ending with “ing” begin to sound alike. Verbs without “ing” demonstrate their unique distinctive form.
Weak example: Getting to the company retreat involved hiking, rowing, swimming and carrying a heavy pack.
Strong example: To get to the company retreat, we hiked, rowed, swam and carried a heavy pack.
Use repetition to link parts
Repeating key words and phrases provides structure to the written and spoken word. Purposeful repetition creates a rhythm, giving emphasis when you are making a point or stressing a theme. It’s difficult to write a paragraph on repetition without repeating the word too often.
But give important words their space
Isn’t there always a qualifier? Don’t repeat key words unless you’re looking for the effect discussed above. Recognize the difference between intended and unintended repetition. When you edit, take out key words that are repeated in the same sentence or paragraph, because important words need space to show their impact. Seek elegant variation in your writing.
Make your writing concise
In a very relevant segment, Clark recommends that you prune writing by cutting big, then small. This refers to cutting out passages that do not support your focus. This is a key tip for instructional writing where designers are often pressured to add extraneous content to please SMEs or clients. Remove content inserted only to please someone else.
Good writers read for both form and content
Don’t overlook how much you can learn from analysis and study of different genres of writing. Clark notes that we can learn to write better captions by reading old magazines, to explain clearly by reading cookbooks, to create intriguing headlines from tabloids and to craft dramatic scenes by reading comics. All of these are skills that learning experience designers might be expected to produce.
Like other sophisticated and nuanced skills, writing is an infinite and ongoing process. Similar to visual design, it’s impossible to reach the final goal. All we can do is continually work at it with increased knowledge and awareness.
Roy’s Writing Tips: iTunes University
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
Add to this list. Share your writing tips below.