I recently facilitated our Writing Skills for Trainers workshop. It’s an excellent one-day workshop for instructional designers, training analysts, instructors, and training managers who need to write performance-based training materials that focus on the "how-to's." The workshop is full of tips and techniques to make your materials interesting, and lively, using a clear, concise writing style.
For this blog, though, I thought I would share a few tips not covered in the workshop:
1. If It Doesn’t Sound Right, It’s Not
The 2010 edition of the Gregg Reference Manual, by William A. Sabin, has 784 pages and covers virtually everything you need to know about writing style, grammar, usage, and formatting. But as a group, the biggest complaint trainers have is that they don’t have enough time. Do you then have time to look up some obscure point about grammar or punctuation? You’ve had years of English courses, so you probably have a good appreciation of correct usage. Okay, then. If something sounds “off,” then just change it. Take out a word. Add a period. Rephrase the sentence so it sounds right. When it sounds right, there’s a very good chance it is.
2. Organizational Style Manual
Many organizations have a style manual that dictates format, font, colors, headlines, and other rules of consistency. If what you write follows those rules, you’re most likely good!
3. Bullets, Periods, and Series
When you use bullet points, do you put a period at the end of each bulleted item? When you list items in a series (e.g. bullets, periods, and series), do you put a comma before the “and” or not? This is a place where consistency can be the rule. Unless your organization dictates one way or another, either way is correct. However, you must be consistent throughout a document or presentation.
4. Pick Another Word
Spelling and word usage are often a struggle for some of us. However, years of academic education or work in the business world have given us an SAT (originally known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) enviable vocabulary. When drafting a training document, occasionally an accede (to comply with) will slip into a paragraph instead of exceed (to surpass). Or there instead of they’re. Spell check is happy to accept those words. So how do you handle that challenge? If you’re short of time, just pick another word from your vocabulary that captures your intent.
5. Avoid the Dreaded Squiggly Line
Don’t you hate it when Microsoft Word drops that blue squiggly line underneath a word you have just written? It shows you something you have just written doesn’t fit Word’s usage parameters. Right-clicking on it may provide a grammatical correction, but often it is the dreaded passive voice. Rightfully so, as passive voice obscures who is performing the action. It is unclear writing. There’s a simple guideline to avoid passive voice—the “who first method.” Ensure your sentence is written in this order: 1) subject (the doer of the action), 2) verb (the action), and 3) object (the receiver of the action).
Passive: The seminar was led by the senior instructor.
Active: The senior instructor led the seminar.
6. Let it Sit
Once you have finished writing a document, proofreading is required. I often write late at night on a business trip. Fatigue is a factor and when I read it over the next day, I can’t believe some of the errors I’ve made. So, here’s the biggest tip. Let the document sit for a day or so. Reread it. Try reading it backwards or out loud. These techniques tend to make errors stand out. After you’ve given a document time to cool off, you’ll catch errors that weren’t apparent when you first wrote it.
7. Have a Colleague Review It
We all suffer from a malady called “author blindness.” We wrote it, so of course it makes sense. Have a fresh set of eyes look at it. A colleague may catch things you have overlooked, or someone who represents your target audience may catch some of your assumptions and errors.
Writing is only half the battle. Writing usable documentation that will allow for improved performance is your end goal. All the best with your clear, concise technical writing!
What tips would you add to this list? What specific writing errors do you struggle with most? I’d love to hear from you!