By Shelley A. Gable
Learners can be fickle, quickly slipping into distraction or boredom if we ask them to read too much.
Though highly interactive, problem-based eLearning can help maintain engagement, completing these activities usually requires learners to read words that we write. In a culture of multi-tasking skimmers, we must write as clearly and concisely as possible to help keep learners motivated.
Practical Writing Advice from George Orwell
Admittedly, when George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language to advocate for writing in plain English, improved eLearning engagement was not his primary goal.
Fed up with the intentionally vague and misleading language common among politicians – which he saw bleeding into mainstream communication – Orwell responded with an essay that called out examples of poor writing and offered advice for communicating clearly.
Though he published the essay over half a century ago, the advice is still practical. Especially for those of us who write training materials.
His essay builds a case for six simple writing rules.
--1-- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Orwell explains that clichés are often ineffective, because we tend to take their meaning for granted. They don’t prompt us to think.
--2-- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
The first example that comes to mind when I see this is utilize versus use. They mean the same thing.
And what about pulchritudinous versus beautiful? Okay, maybe nobody uses that one.
--3-- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Something that came to my attention about a year ago is our overuse of the word will. We often say things like, “When you click the Start button, Windows will display a menu.” But will is completely unnecessary here. It makes just as much sense to say, “When you click the Start button, Windows displays a menu.”
I know, that’s a REALLY simple example. But if you’re not already in the habit of avoiding the word will, I challenge you to watch for it in the next thing you compose – whether it’s instructional materials or something else. It’s shocking how often that pesky little word sneaks in.
Of course, Orwell’s point is to avoid unnecessary wordiness in general – he probably didn’t intend to specifically target the word will.
--4-- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Using passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it can be vague and wordy, which is why it’s not ideal. Especially for instruction.
PASSIVE: After entering an applicant’s data, proposed loan terms are displayed to discuss with the borrower.
ACTIVE: After entering an applicant’s data, the system displays proposed loan terms to discuss with the borrower.
Does one seem clearer?
--5-- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This is so relevant for training!
Subject matter experts often use department-specific jargon when providing information. Not only is jargon potentially unfamiliar to learners, but there’s really no need for them to expend effort learning a term if they’re not going to use it on the job. Plus, using avoidable terminology that is specific to a single department in a company limits the reusability of that training for other parts of the organization.
--6-- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
In other words, if breaking one of these rules actually allows you to express an idea more clearly, do it.
This makes me think of sentence fragments. Technically, a sentence fragment is not a grammatically correct sentence. But sometimes we get away with fragments when we use them to emphasize a point and the idea is still understandable. Rightly or not, I frequently use fragments in posts on this blog. In fact, I’ve done it at least once in this post.
Okay, I certainly can’t claim to follow all these rules all the time. But I try. And you can see how these basic guidelines can help simplify our writing to improve its readability.
Do you have examples to share of following (or breaking) these rules? Or do you have other writing-related pet peeves...I mean, rules...to suggest? If so, please utilize the commenting function provided here by the blog.