When I started counting the types of writing for eLearning required to produce a course, I was stunned. One instructional designer can provide the skills of an entire writing department.
Not only do we need skills for expository, creative, persuasive, and technical writing, but we often write about topics for which we know very little. Furthermore, our writing must be motivating while clearly delivering concepts, procedures, and facts.
Here, you’ll find some brief guidelines focusing on each type of writing. We may do much of this writing in storyboards, so I omitted “writing for storyboards” as a separate type. What other types of writing for eLearning can you think of?
1. Writing On-screen Text
They Skim! Nearly all types of online learning—from simple web pages to highly interactive multimedia—include on-screen text. Perhaps in prehistoric times, learners read everything that was on the screen. Today, people skim before they read, and learners may skip material unless they are highly engaged.
Requirements for On-screen. Writing for eLearning should be lively but not self-conscious. It must relate to the learner’s current world to give it meaning while providing them with something new. The on-screen text should consider people’s limits for processing new information (around four chunks).
Mind-deadening? When on-screen text accompanies audio, it is often displayed in short, pithy phrases, sometimes as bullet points. Although this can provide another channel for encoding information, many learners find it mind-deadening. See alternatives to bullet lists to get around the bullet point approach.
2. Writing Audio Scripts
Find the Spark. Writing for the ear—to be heard—is quite different than writing to be read. Writing for audio is one more type of writing for which learning designers must be skilled. Like radio scripts, audio scripts should have a hook that sparks the imagination and entices the listener. We must draw the learner into our content, like a moth to a flame or an instructional designer to social media.
It’s About Sound. Word choices are critical when writing for the ear, so pay attention to the sounds of words and the cadence of phrases. When it comes to scripting, less is more. Get away from your script for a few days (or hours if time is limited) and re-read it aloud. You’ll then be able to tell what is extraneous and what will be difficult for a narrator to read.
Don’t Mangle It. You don’t want your excellent script to get mangled, so I prefer to use professional narrators over AI voices, though my clients sometimes have differing opinions. For advice in this area, see How to Choose Voice Over Talent.
3. Writing Video Scripts
Video is for Showing. Many eLearning courses include videos. The basic rule for writing a video script is to “Show, don’t tell.” Writing for video is a skill that professionals spend a lifetime developing. But since we have to be good at every type of writing, we don’t have that luxury. To develop scripting skills independently, it’s wise to read, watch, listen, and practice all you can about writing for video.
How to Improve. To move along more quickly, consider hiring a scriptwriter to watch the process or take a professional workshop or course. Try to tag along on a video shoot to get started. For more complex video scripts, you must think about the set, writing dialogue, character development, and camera angles. See How to Write a Script for Video.
4. Technical Writing
Dull and Dry. Writing for eLearning includes some of the driest content around. Many of us are involved in writing about technical subject matter. This includes how to use software, fix a digital device, or test a phone line. And let’s be honest, the topics are often dull and bland.
A Dash of Creativity. Technical writing requires an injection of creativity to engage an audience. It requires finding a way to connect with your readers, listeners, or users honestly. This might entail a dash of humor, a conversational style, or a brilliant metaphor. Oh. Did I mention technical writing needs to be succinct, clear, and accurate? Engagement usually means understanding the content, revising like mad, and testing it on users.
5. Writing Stories
It’s Good Stuff. Storytelling is all the rage now, and for good reason. It ties concepts and facts together into meaningful knowledge. Educational research shows that storytelling helps people learn, retain, and retrieve the information embedded in a story. That’s why people have been telling stories since ancient times.
What Stories Are. Many formats of storytelling work well for training purposes. Introducing a short scenario where a character must solve a problem or issue in a workplace situation is effective for content presentation, discovery learning, practice activities, and test questions. More involved stories might provide an account of an event (actual or fictitious) and provide a theme for a lesson, a virtual environment, or an entire course.
Set-up, Problem, Resolution. Scenarios and stories require a set-up where the writer provides an environment where characters can exist. The characters should resonate with the audience, and they need a problem to solve or a goal to achieve. Most importantly, according to story expert Lisa Cron, the key to storytelling is how the protagonist changes.
Ideally, the problem or goal has an emotional component—there are consequences to making a particular decision. A more involved story might have unforeseen consequences—twists in the plot. Finally, there is a resolution, a teaching point, or a satisfying conclusion. Check out Hadiya Nuriddin’s book StoryTraining to learn how to write stories for training.
6. Writing Test Questions
Would Rather Teach Brain Surgery. I find writing reliable and valid test items to be more difficult than designing a course on brain surgery. The test item must completely correspond to the learning objective. Every word in the test item must have only one meaning, and every sentence can have only one interpretation, no matter who is reading it. The sentence structure should be easy to understand while simultaneously testing higher-order thinking skills.
Allot Lots o’ Time. Wherever writing assessment items fits into your design process, leave a great deal of time to complete this task. Tests should be fair, and writing assessment items requires a lot of thought and attention. See the other articles about writing test items if you want further guidelines.
7. Writing Glossary Definitions
Rewriting Definitions. Instructional designers often find it necessary to include glossary terms in online courses. Although Subject Matter Experts may provide us with these definitions, they often need to be rewritten for clarity and to meet the needs of a specific audience. Often, we must write definitions with little to go on.
Don’t Go Mad. There are many challenges to writing glossary definitions. I know. I nearly went mad writing over 460 definitions for my iPhone app, Instructional Design Guru (no longer available). Here’s some of what I learned:
- Every word counts.
- Remove extraneous words.
- Use a consistent style for every definition.
- Let someone else edit them.
These points may be valid for all writing, but if so, they are 120% true for glossary definitions.
8. Writing Interactions
It’s Powerful. Interactivity leverages the power of online learning, from simple drag-and-drop exercises to full-blown simulations and games. Instructional designers create interactions so learners can test new knowledge and skills in a safe and challenging or fun environment.
Three Types in One. Interactivity doesn’t just happen. Someone needs to create the interaction or game based on an instructional purpose. Instructional Designers must describe how an interaction works in a storyboard (one type of writing), create the interactive activity itself (another type of writing), and write instructions for the learners (see microcopy below).
9. Writing Microcopy
The Little Things. Microcopy refers to the little instructions and phrases we use in eLearning and user interface design. Sentences like, “Click here for a definition, even though you should already know it.” or “If you do not pass this super fair test, please resign from your current position.” Perhaps that’s the microcopy you wish you could write some days.
User Experience. Don’t let your microcopy be an afterthought. Keep it succinct, with the right amount of detail and well-chosen words. The clarity of your mini-instructions affects the user experience. A frustrated learner will become unmotivated and, as a result, will get less out of the learning experience. Consider writing microcopy to be a critical task for effective eLearning. Here are more guidelines for writing microcopy.
Defined. Do you ever write the description of a course for an online catalog, learning management system, or newsletter? Are you responsible for enticing employees to enroll in a non-required course? If so, you’re involved in copywriting—using language to persuade someone to take a specific and measurable action, such as taking a course, using a product, or listening to an expert.
AIDA. Copywriters often refer to a formula with the acronym AIDA, which has some similarities to ADDIE. The AIDA formula goes like this: A is for Attention-grab your audience’s attention; I is for Interest-hold their interest; D is for Desire-emphasize the benefits, using real examples if possible; and A is for Action-provide a call to action, such as encouraging someone to sign up for a course.
How to Improve
Whenever I hear writers speak about their craft, the one consistent piece of advice they give is this, “practice, practice, practice.” You have to start writing to improve your writing. Always have a second person read your work to catch errors, awkward wording, and sentences you need to streamline. For some new approaches, see Supercharge Your Writing for Instructional Design.