Writing is one of the most important skills of the competent learning experience designer. From on-screen text to video scripts, we are often required to come up with words that flow. Words that attract and excite the reader. In my effort to improve these skills, I’ve filled in my education gaps through various classes, books, podcasts and lots of practice.
So I was pleased to come across a now defunct podcast called Roy’s Writing Tools. Although the podcast was published years ago, it was sponsored by the Poynter Institute, a well-known training center and resource for journalists. I find that most guidelines and tips for effective writing remain viable for years.
Eight Important Writing Tips
Roy Peter Clark, the podcaster, is also the author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. He reads his work and discusses key points to improve one’s 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.)
3. Use varied sentence lengths for tempo
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.
4. Use the “ing” form of verbs sparingly
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.
5. 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.
6. …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.
7. 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.
8. Analyze other writers as you read
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.
Add to this list. Share your writing tips below.