Become A Better Writer

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.

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  1. Marie says

    Love the suggestions! Does anyone have any specific ideas to encourage better writing in an online course?


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    These suggestions should work for online and offline courses, Marie. What are you specifically seeking?


    Marie Reply:

    Guess my biggest concern is getting the non-tradtional adult learners to actually use these tips to better their writing. Maybe that is just the way of busy adults…


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    With adult writers, I’ve heard that one of the biggest issues is a lack of planning. Teach them how to plan to write and also how to be a ruthless self-editor. I’m sure there are books out there that can help you. Good luck!

    Marie Reply:

    I agree planning is essential. When they are 1000 miles away in an online course, it is sometimes easier said than done due to life taking priority for them. I’m going to explore more for specific steps to include. Maybe that will help. Thanks for responding Connie

  2. says

    Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the suggestion. I will have to check it out. I am by no means, a professional writer, but I have always aspired to be a writer so I am always looking for ways to hone my writing skills. :)


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Yes! And it’s under $8.00 US :-)


  3. says

    Connie, great info here.

    Marie, when I teach ANYONE writing, I’ve found they don’t get it until they do exercises. So I started giving homework with 10 to 20 sentences for each “writing problem,” one writing problem per week. I also told them that unless their solutions reduced the amount of verbiage, they may not be correct! Non-writers have trouble understanding that good writing means fewer words.


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Susan,
    Brilliant suggestions. Thanks so much for the tips. It makes sense that non-writers wouldn’t understand that fewer words are better. I think I was kind of shocked when I learned that too :-)


    Marie Reply:

    Excellent idea Susan. I’ll try adding that. Since many of our adult learners are military, they know how to be “short & sweet” in their writing already. Sometimes they need to be pushed to include complete sentences and give the background first. We work a lot on knowing the audience while trying to get them to think outside the box of their current world.


  4. says

    ID and writing might be separate skills, but I agree that you’ll find more success and versatility in your work if you are strong in both areas. I’ve been on some projects in which an instructional designer and writer worked together, however I prefer when they are combined into one role (even if they are separate phases in a project). Great article!


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Jennie,
    Yes, even though they are separate skills, they are typically not separate job functions, unless there’s a big video script to write or something like that. I suspect writing is an overlooked topic in many Instructional Design graduate programs. I think most employers assume the IDer is a good writer, but often, he or she has not had much training in this area. And the writing component fits in so well with the tasks and job roles of the IDer. That’s why I like to write about writing every so often here. And that’s why I tweeted your article about bringing characters to life through writing. You have a lot to offer people and I hope you continue to blog about this. So will I.


  5. says

    I liked this article. Many times we focus on structure and content and fail to look at how the information is written. I have seen many good writers fail at instructional design because they tend to be too wordy. I once had a boss who said that if you can say it in 5 words, then try saying it in three. The point was to importance of brevity. When adults learn, they like to skim, scan, and move through the materials. Thus, how we write and organize our information becomes more critical than the person who picks up a book to be entertained. Changing behaviors take strategy and planning in how we write. Thanks for sharing this article.


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Duane,
    Thanks for your comment and link. Brevity in writing is surprisingly hard to achieve, isn’t it?



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