Writing for eLearning, Part I: Concise and Compelling
Everyone needs a great learning management system (LMS), from a business to a learning professional to an end-learner. But when it comes to your job as an eLearning professional, you and your staff need more than a fantastic LMS. And that’s because even if your LMS has all the amazing bells and whistles that make it a top-of-the-line technology supporting your efforts, there’s at least one thing it can’t do for you: Write the content! I’ve written before about how important this is (see eLearning Content Needs Great Writing), so now it’s time to get into some nuts and bolts about making it happen.
Concise Writing 101
William Strunk Jr. published The Elements of Style in 1918, and one of his former students, E. B. White revised and expanded it into one of the leading style manuals for writers, commonly referred to as Strunk & White. Strunk said this about brevity: A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. Words to live by!
You already know how important it is to keep things brief and engaging. One of the most grueling yet rewarding writing exercises I’ve ever done was back in college. I was doing a special public policy semester in Washington, DC, and was given an assignment to write a 25-page paper on some particular current policy issue. The paper was graded and handed back. We were then told there was second part to the assignment, which was to take that 25-page paper and boil it down into a 5-page brief that still conveyed all the most important information in the longer paper. Yikes! That was one of the hardest assignments I ever completed, but it also introduced me to the art of brevity. When I went back through the longer paper, I saw all kinds of superfluous language and other stuff that just wasn’t needed. The context given to the boil-down part of the assignment was that you had to turn it into a brief for a busy legislator on Capitol Hill who certainly doesn’t have time to read a 25-page paper. Talk about being concise! It was an incredibly useful exercise. Try this with your staff in a three-step exercise. Obviously, none of you have the time to sit around writing 25-page papers, but take 10 pages of eLearning content and force yourself to whittle it down to 5 without losing any critical content, and then in the final step whittle that down to a one-page bulleted list that still contains all the most important information your learners need. That’s a great starting point for concise writing for eLearning content. Master this art and you’ll be several steps ahead of the game.
Creative Writing 101
It’s also fairly common knowledge at this point that telling a compelling story in your eLearning content is far more engaging than lecture-style text. To be a story, it’s got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and characters that interact with each other to move the plot forward. If you want to get a feel for how this works, the best way is to just practice doing it. Take your one-page bulleted list from the concise writing exercise above and start thinking up ways that the content could become a compelling story with characters. See how many of the bullet points can be translate into bits of dialogue between characters, and what kind of plot might work for telling the story that will get the ideas across to learners as they enjoy a narrative that unfolds before them.
Make no mistake, eLearning content really does need great writing. If you and your staff take the time to practice concise, compelling writing using the exercises outlined above, you’ll be well on your way.