Thursday, March 31, 2011

George Orwell's Advice for Writing eLearning Content

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 clich├ęs 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.

Compare...

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.

Coming clean...

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.

10 comments:

  1. re: number 3 - I'm always on the lookout for the word "that" in my writing. It creeps in so frequently, and rarely adds any meaning.

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  2. Great timeless advice. Thanks for sharing.

    Re: #4
    The problem with passive voice is that it disguises who is doing what -- useful for politicians, but unhelpful for training! The learner has to translate to active voice on his own to find out what HE is supposed to do, and potentially gets it wrong, just like our active voice re-work does. (It's not the system that enters the data, right?) By putting the learner into the action, the whole idea is much clearer: "When YOU enter applicant data, the system displays..." etc.

    My rule: Put the reader/learner into the action whenever you can.

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  3. Thanks Jonathan!

    @bonnieonpaper - I agree completely! Though I have to admit that it's easy to unintentionally slip into the passive.

    @J - Very good point about "that." Actually, I know I'm guilty with that one.

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  4. I was listening to Marketplace Money on NPR this morning, and a guy said something at the end that made me think of Orwell's first rule.

    Although a cliche might not prompt us to think its meaning, something we're not used to seeing (or in this case, hearing) really can grab our attention and prompt some thought.

    Here's quote that made me think of this:

    "I think there's some things that there's more value in passing them off to somebody who, that's what they do for a living, and taxes is a big one for me. Like, I would never pull my own tooth."

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  5. Great food for thought! I've been guilty of violating the no jargon rule myself. It can be easy to become swept away while working with SME's and start using jargon without being aware.

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  6. Joe, I know exactly what you mean! On the one hand, it's actually a good thing to use SMEs' jargon with them, because I think it helps show that you "get it." But then, that makes it even more challenging to recognize when writing training materials.

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  7. Great post. One thing I teach my students - and this is an elusively obvious one - is to simply ONLY use the words they fully understand. Very often, I see people try to puff up their content by using fancy words that the authors themselves don't know the full meaning of. This leads to awkward sentences. Avoid this by simply writing in words you know you know. If in doubt, consult a dictionary first.

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  8. Great post. It sort of summarizes some main points from a tech writing course I took. The material is very helpful and serves as a great reminder to keep it simple. Simple language is plain language and plain language leaves little room for misunderstanding.

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Thank you for your comments.