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4 Writing Principles Every eLearning Designer Should Know

By Kody Jackson, Instructional Writer

Jackson_Kody.pngIn my time as a university teaching assistant (TA), I saw a lot of bad writing. Clauses hanging all over the place, dangling participles, comma splices…a veritable side-show horror of prose.

Let’s go through my writing steps guaranteed to make you sound better. We’ll start with the following passage. While it’s a little ridiculous, this example is not that far off from what I see from day to day:

Your fruit intake also needs to be considered. Experts at the National Science Foundation have created recommended amounts for a number of different kinds of fruit. It is recommended that the average healthy adult eat four bananas, two oranges, and also make sure to consume fifteen raspberries daily. Smoothies can also be consumed sparingly. Excessive sugar intake is also not recommended. 

Let’s go through my writing steps and principles to see how we can make this dull passage shine.

Step 1. Avoid Passive Voice Like the Plague

Passive voice, to me at least, sounds like nails on a chalkboard. “The results were obtained…”; “The process was observed”; “The system wa-”… okay, I can’t even bring myself to write three examples in a row. It’s just that painful!

When fixing passive voice, always think about the “who.” Who is doing the action? With passive voice, we have no idea. The oatmeal was consumed…by dinosaurs? By pirates? By jealousy? Always find the actor in the scenario and place him/her/it in charge of the action. By this virtue, we could improve our passage in the following ways:

 

[Consider] your fruit intake also needs to be considered. Experts at the National Science Foundation have created recommended amounts for a number of different kinds of fruit.  It is recommended that The average healthy adult [should] eat four bananas, two oranges, and also make sure to consume fifteen raspberries daily. [You should consume] smoothies can also be consumed sparingly. [The National Science Foundation] does not recommend excessive sugar intake is also not recommended.

Step 2. Things that Go Together, Flow Together

Think about parallel structure in your writing. No—not parallelograms—parallel structure! On the simple scale, this means putting like-minded things together. Don’t say, “We went to the boardwalk, visited the marina, and were busy eating chips.” Instead, you could say something like “We went to the boardwalk, visited the marina, and ate chips” or “While we were eating chips, we visited the boardwalk and the marina.”

On the elegant scale, this is how you create beauty and flow in your prose. Don’t believe me? Try Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”).

So how would parallel structure help our revised passage?

 

Consider your fruit intake. Experts at the National Science Foundation have created recommended amounts for a number of different kinds of fruit. The average healthy adult should eat four bananas, two oranges, and also make sure to consume fifteen raspberries daily. You should consume smoothies sparingly. The National Science Foundation does not recommend excessive sugar intake.

Step 3: Variety is the Spice of Life

Have you ever wondered why reading your old children’s stories are boring as an adult? Most likely, it’s because “See Spot run” doesn’t cut it anymore. Passages that are too repetitive have a numbing quality to them, whether that’s something childish (The children played. The dogs ran. The kites flew. The readers fell asleep.) or complicated (When we examine the structural anatomy, we see x. When we explore the cranial cavity, we see y…).

So mix up your sentence structures (and verb use, too). Put long and short side-by-side, use synonyms when possible, and don’t write lines of introductory or concluding phrases. Let’s see how variety would improve this passage:

 

Consider your fruit intake. Experts at the National Science Foundation have created recommended amounts for a number of different kinds of fruit. The average healthy adult should eat four bananas, two oranges, and fifteen raspberries daily. You should consume Smoothies [can certainly help, but be careful]! The National Science Foundation does not recommend Excessive sugar intake [is bad for you].

Step 4: Brevity is the Soul of Wit (and Good Writing)

Research shows that readers only actually “read” about 30% of the words on any given screen. So be as concise as possible! Long introductory phrases, unnecessary modifiers, qualifying statements—you should axe as many of these bad boys as possible.

Let’s see how implementing brevity would affect this passage:

 

Consider your fruit intake. Experts at the National Science Foundation have created recommended amounts for a number of different kinds of fruit. [that a] the average healthy adult should eat four bananas, two oranges, and fifteen raspberries daily. Smoothies can certainly help, but be careful! Excessive [Too much] sugar intake is bad for you.

Where does that leave us? Let’s compare the passages side-by-side.

Original Passage: 

Your fruit intake also needs to be considered. Experts at the National Science Foundation have created recommended amounts for a number of different kinds of fruit. It is recommended that the average healthy adult eat four bananas, two oranges, and also make sure to consume fifteen raspberries daily. Smoothies can also be consumed sparingly. Excessive sugar intake is also not recommended. 

(61 words, deathly boring, repetitive, and passive) 

Revised Passage:

Consider your fruit intake. Experts at the National Science Foundation recommend that a healthy adult eat four bananas, two oranges, and fifteen raspberries daily. Smoothies can certainly help, but be careful! Too much sugar is bad for you.

(37 words, more lively, varied, active)

 

The results speak for themselves. Take the time to follow these principles when you’re writing and editing the words you put onscreen.   

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