Friday, October 21, 2011


Writing for eLearning represents an interesting challenge for people who aren’t used to writing for eLearning. This blog touches on some of the basics of writing for eLearning and provides some simple suggestions on how to make your prose more effective when it hits the web.

Remember that telling is not training.

As much as some people might want to cling to this notion, telling someone something once does not constitute training. Training, at a minimum, should include some sort of practice activities so learners get a chance to noodle around the new content as it makes connections with other ideas in their heads.

Use stories to make training more real.

I’m not saying that you should be out there trying to write the Great American Novel in the form of an eLearning class (although that is a pretty cool concept). Tell the story in terms of the learner’s universe. Don’t provide a list of tasks and expect learners to remember what they are and when to use them. Instead, use common work tasks learners already do, and present the new content in that context. It helps to include transitional materials that connect one part of a lesson with the next.

To do this sort of connecting (see the way I connected the preceding paragraph with this one?), use summaries at the end of lessons that say things like, “Now that you’ve completed the XYZ task, you’ve created the desired output. In the next lesson, you’ll see how to apply that output to the 123 task.” Or introduce new tasks by saying things like, “By the time you reach this point in the process, you should have the A, B, and C completed. In this lesson, you’ll see how to use those completed activities to…”

These are simple, rhetorical tricks, but they work.

So, use the existing work processes as the plot of your story, and then stitch the lessons together with connecting language as shown above.

Write simply.

Hemingway is reputed to have advised young writers to write simply. He urged them to appreciate the complexity of the world, but to write simply when expressing that complexity.

Suggestions to help you write simply:

  • Avoid using the word “utilize.” I’ve yet to come across any instances in the English language where the word “use” can’t replace the word “utilize.” And that goes for any word that ends in “ize.” As instructional designers, we need to write clearly and directly. If your prose starts to sound like an MBA wrote it, you’re in trouble.

  • Do what newspaper reporters do and write to an eighth to tenth grade reading level. I suggest taking all your copy from a course you’ve written and dropping it into Microsoft Word. If you’ve configured Word to display readability statistics after you complete a spell check, Word will provide you with some useful data about your writing, including a rough estimate of the reading level required to understand it and how easy it is to read.

Restrict yourself to no more than 100 words per page of content.

Frankly, I’d recommend no more than 80 words per page, but that can become restrictive. If you need more room, insert an extra page.

Tips to help you achieve this limit:

  • Outline your course before you begin to write it.

  • For each line in your outline, presume your course will need one screen of content. To cover your topic thoroughly, it may be helpful to let the OCD side of your personality take over when you outline your course. Don’t be shy about creating a monster outline because no one’s ever going to see it except you. The point is, the more thorough your outline, the more complete your course will be, and, if you find you’ve gone too crazy, it’s a lot easier to delete a line from an outline than it is to write the copy you need to cover a topic and then delete it.

  • Cover your topic in the space of that one screen.

  • If you need more than one screen to cover a topic, consider splitting your topic into two and use two pages to cover both new topics thoroughly.

Factor how fast people read when designing your course.

One source puts the average words per minute that average American adults read at 300 words per minute . This has a major impact on the design of your course, so factor that in when you consider how long you want your course to be. If this figure is accurate, it should take an average American adult 20 seconds to read a 100-word page of content.

However, if people are reading to think critically and learn, they’ll probably read a bit more slowly than that as they have to expend energy integrating your new content with what they already know.

Use an editor.

Abraham Lincoln is once reputed to have said that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. There’s a corollary in there when it comes to editing your own work. You need fresh eyes on your content, someone who can spot when the Curse of Knowledge makes its way into your writing. For more on the Curse of Knowledge, please go to You’ll be glad you did.

Not only will good editors edit your copy, but they’ll make recommendations on how to improve it. Learning from a good editor is one of the best ways to become a more effective writer.

The cool thing about these suggestions is that they’re technology independent. You can practice them irrespective of the technology you’re using to create your courseware.

This article was originally posted at

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