Write Less, But Better: Six Tips for Keeping It Simple
Shaping the future of learning
When I applied to work at Kineo, one of the writing samples I submitted was a 12-page analysis of the poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience I’d written in college. At the time, I thought it did a good job showcasing the kind of complex, information-heavy writing I could produce. But now, as I approach my 2-year anniversary as an eLearning scriptwriter, I realize just how mistaken I was.
Scriptwriters need to be very mindful of the way we present information. When I first began writing eLearning scripts, I struggled to capture the snappiness and clarity that make content not only easy to digest but also enjoyable to read. I was stuck in the “bad” habits I’d formed writing research papers in college and grad school. I wanted my writing to sound academic – lots of clauses and modifiers, probably a few semicolons and the occasional well-placed colon– and I felt the need to expand on the source material, bloating the text so it took up tons of space on the page.
As it turns out, that’s not what our learners need or want.
If everything's gone according to our normal process, by the time I dig into a project’s content, my lead designer has collaborated with the client subject matter expert(s) and determined exactly what content the course should focus on. They turn daunting, 20-page source documents into useful reference sheets so that writers like me can work with them (no elaboration required).
The scriptwriter’s major focus at this stage then becomes the writing itself. When I looked back at that William Blake essay recently, I started to notice all the elements that could be improved. If I took another shot at crafting that analysis today, I’m pretty confident I could trim it down from a rambling 12-page document to a concise 6. Here’s how:
Lead with what's important, and keep what follows relevant and brief
It can be challenging to grab and keep a learner's attention, and this tactic helps ensure that the key points stick.
My Blake paper’s introductory paragraph contains 160 words, and I don’t present the thesis or analytical approach until the middle of that paragraph. Even as the author of the essay, I had to reread the introduction several times to figure out what the point was. And quite frankly, I lost interest by the third sentence.
In the interest of brevity, I won’t transcribe the whole paragraph here (for your reference, it contains approximately 40 adverbs, along with an entire MLA-style citation). If I rewrote it for eLearning – along the lines of a course objectives summary – it would look like this:
This essay uses close analysis of the significant relationship between text and imagery in three sets of paired works from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience to explore how innocence differs from experience. The exploration centers on “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow,” along with the two versions of “Nurse’s Song” and “Holy Thursday.”
Eliminate repetition and over-explanation
Often, source documents repeat the key points over and over, or they provide far more explanation than the learner needs. Some repetition can be useful, and some explanation can be necessary depending on the learners' knowledge base. But ultimately, both repetition and over-explanation are tedious to read and to write. Keeping both to a minimum will make your writing cleaner and more reader-friendly.
Let’s look at an excerpt from the Blake essay, paragraph 1:
Key to analyzing this relationship is the understanding that, in the case of the illuminated Songs, it serves the reader well not to analyze the text and the imagery exclusive of one another, but rather as thoroughly interconnected. John Grant remarks in his essay, “Interpreting Blake’s ‘The Fly,’” that “no correspondence or contradiction between the poetry and the painting should be considered insignificant” (Grant 32). Such an approach will be the basis for this analysis.
Now take a look at this section trimmed down:
This analysis is based upon the significant interconnectedness between text and imagery in the illuminated Songs.
The original version of this section contains 75 words (more than my entire rewrite for Tip #1). The redo? Just 16. It still gets the point across, but it’s shorter, neater, and easier to absorb.
Keep your sentences short and simple
I love a good compound sentence with plentiful modifiers, but that kind of writing can be really difficult to parse. It's better for learners - and easier on you - to keep things short and sweet (and free of superfluous adverbs).
I’m sure you’re picking up on the pattern by now…here’s what I did in my essay:
In “Nurses Song,” we see depicted a young woman—presumably the nurse who serves as the narrative voice for the accompanying text—fixing the hair of an adolescent boy while a girl, younger than the nurse figure but seemingly older than the boy, sits reading behind them.
It's important to note that revising for eLearning is not always about reducing word count. All of the information in this excerpt is relevant to my analysis. In this case, rather than cutting things out, I’d want to simplify the sentence structure and break up the information so that it’s easier for the learner to digest:
The imagery in “Nurses Song” depicts a young woman fixing an adolescent boy’s hair while a girl sits reading behind them. The young woman is presumably the nurse, who serves as the narrative voice for the accompanying text.
Make sure it flows
Think about how the individual pieces of content connect. Do they build on each other seamlessly, or do they seem disjointed? If something doesn’t fit in your content’s flow, it may not belong. If you decide it’s not necessary, cut it out! (More on that in Tip #6.)
Again, I look to my essay’s opening paragraph as a place for improvement. In it, I use an MLA-style citation to reinforce the main thrust of the analysis: Imagery and text are thoroughly interconnected in Blake’s work. (You can see that citation in context in Tip #2.) This quote seems like it was shoehorned in and doesn’t add anything new or critical. If I were revising that section knowing what I’ve learned, I’d either paraphrase the relevant quotation or leave it out altogether.
Avoid passive voice
Your composition teachers were right: Active voice is the way to go. At best, passive voice seems overly formal. At worst, it makes you sound like a college student desperately scrambling to hit the minimum word count. It wasn't fooling your Lit 101 professor, and it's not effective for eLearning.
I’ll be candid with you: I struggled to hit the minimum page count for my Blake analysis. And the only reason the essay’s final paragraph trickles onto page 12 is because I used passive voice with reckless abandon. Let’s do a little revision, shall we?
Passive: The tone of this poem is also reflected in the vivid colors used in the illumination.
Active: The illumination’s vivid colors reflect this poem’s tone.
Passive: It is here that Fairer reveals his flawed approach to analyzing the piece.
Active: Here, Fairer reveals his flawed approach to analyzing the piece.
In each of these examples, switching to active voice shifts the tone slightly. The revised sentences closely resemble their original versions, but they sound livelier and cleaner. Active voice also tends to put the focus on a sentence’s main point, meaning it’ll help you to lead with the important stuff.
Reread your work and edit ruthlessly
This is where it all comes together. In essence, Tip #6 is to thoroughly proofread and make sure that you’ve followed Tips 1-5.
Both of my degrees are in creative writing, and my time in peer writing workshops taught me the joys (yes, joys) of the line edit. I find few things more satisfying than fine-tuning a sentence. And I've come to understand that a thorough line edit can do wonders for the flow and clarity of a course's content.
No matter how hard you might try to follow every rule of the client style guide, you’re still human. Things get missed. This is a great opportunity to go back through Tips 1-5 and adjust your writing as needed. I even like to read passages aloud sometimes – you’d be amazed what your eyes skim over when you’re familiar with your own work. Just keep tweaking and trimming until it sounds right.
Writing for eLearning ended up being nothing like what I expected. It requires you to be brief and dynamic and concise, and if you’re new to it, you won’t necessarily get it right on the first try. That’s why we build time into our process for revisions and peer reviews.
Back when I did my first phone interview with my boss, she sounded less than thrilled with the Blake analysis. Even though she didn’t actively discourage me because of it, I was disappointed that it clearly hadn’t satisfied the criteria she was looking for. I was writing for academia, not eLearning. I figured it out eventually, though. And I often feel like I need to relearn these best practices when I’m presented with new content.
It’s an ongoing process. Get something on the page. Give it a final once-over. Cut what’s unnecessary. Admire what’s left.