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10 Ways to Write Better for Learners

When I was studying instructional design in graduate school, nobody mentioned this:

People Don’t Like to Read

…at least, not so much for training. Here’s what I’ve noticed since then:

People Like to Read (Endlessly)

  • The Internet
  • Novels
  • Stuff about their hobbies
People Want These to Be Quick

  • Prework for training
  • Training materials
  • Manuals

01-24 January Daffodils

January Daffodils

Here are 10 tips you can use to make your writing more helpful for your learners.

  1. Don’t fight it. Get over the idea that people should want to read. Just make the (inevitable) reading experience as efficient as possible.
  2. Start with a clear path. Present the most regular, expected, and trouble-free way to do something first. Once you have clearly documented the “regular” way, then include add-ons and unusual circumstances. Put those later in the document or as links or side bars.
  3. First things first. Organize instructions so the user will see what to do in the correct order. For example:
    Old Instructions

    Click the red button in the corner of your document to put it away. Don’t forget to save it first.


    1. Save your document.
    2. Click the red button in the upper-left corner to close it.


  4. Avoid long, wordy paragraphs. Simplify language. Use lean sentences and phrases. Add bullets and numbered lists to make reading easier. For example:
    From an Old Computer

    Standby mode also allows faxes to come through to the computer, and it enables the PC to automatically retrieve e-mail messages and download information from the Internet, if you have programmed the computer to do so.

    A Leaner Version

    While in standby mode your computer can automatically:

    • Receive faxes
    • Retrieve e-mail messages
    • Download information from the Internet


  5. Use the Oxford comma to avoid ambiguity. That’s This, that, and the other thing—serial commas with “and,” “or,” and sometimes with “nor.” You can leave it out for personal correspondence or if directed by a publication’s style guide. But for training, use the “extra” comma to distinguish the items in a list as separate from each other.
  6. Avoid colloquialisms. Depending on your audience and the shelf life of your materials, avoid idioms, catchy phrases, and slang. If your work will be translated, use clear, standard language throughout.
  7. Avoid the passive voice. Sadly, we often see the passive voice in business and academic language. The thing to do (almost always) is to recast the sentence. Use the active voice to make it clear who is doing what.
    Passive Voice

    1. The document was edited.
    2. Help can be found by calling 408 555-1212.
    3. Vacation days are tracked by the system.
    4. Mistakes are common.
    Active Voice

    1. She edited the document.
    2. Call 408 555-1212 to reach the Help Desk.
    3. We use the system to track vacation days.
    4. Don’t be surprised if you make a few mistakes.


  8. Make navigation easy. If there’s a table of contents, put it right after the title page. If your document is online, don’t make people hunt for links.
  9. Create white space. Don’t make people read long text lines, and don’t crowd the pages.
    • Use generous margins.
    • Break longer paragraphs into shorter ones.
    • Use ragged right formatting (don’t justify the right margin… that makes text harder to read).


  10. Edit ruthlessly. Shorten sentences. Remove extra words. Remove prepositional phrases when you can. Ask someone else to read your materials to check for typos, punctuation errors, usage, reading level, and accessibility.

Of course we often write for our learners, and many appreciate it when we do. However, they usually want to read and absorb materials for learning as efficiently as possible. We should strive to make the reading easy. It should flow. Our learners should hardly be noticing the reading. Instead, we want them to notice that they can find and use helpful information as quickly as is reasonable for what they need to learn.

P.S. I included the Erlicheer daffodils for those of you who are in cold and snowy places just now. 


Post | Serial Comma

Post | Using Serial Commas

Post | Avoid This Common Passive Voice Mistake

Post | How to Add White Space

Post | Justified Text Versus Ragged-Right Text

Post | Ragged Right or Justified Alignment?

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