Training: Getting it Write

Sept. 13, 2018

A few months ago, The New York Times took a hit for reporting on a recent confrontation between Palestinian and Israeli armed forces along the Gaza Strip border. The Tweet read: “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.”

Critics charge that “died” was imprecise as well as inaccurate—died from what? Disease, old age? The criticism sparked a discussion about precision in language. It would have been more accurate, some of the critics argued, to say, “Dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops.” (What the grammarians call the passive voice, which in this case puts the emphasis on the victims.) Others preferred the active: “Israeli troops killed dozens of Palestinian protestors,” which puts the emphasis on the Israeli troops as the bad guys. It was enough to drive me to my “little book,” William Strunk, Jr.’s, Elements of Style, long the bible for writers of various persuasions and experience.

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As I flipped through, searching for what Professor Strunk had to say about the proper use of active and passive voice, it struck me that one of the strengths of a good training program is the writing that supports it, from fact sheets to training manuals to web-based learning modules. Before we get into some of Strunk’s rules for clear writing, however, it’s worth taking time to review some of the basic principles of instructional design that should be addressed before a single word is deposited on a sheet of paper.

Guiding Principle Number One is where I always start, a holdover from my old beat reporting days. Except that I proceed in reverse order; Instead of what happened to whom, how, when, and why, I start with answering (in detail) the “to whom.” What’s the audience I am trying to reach? From there I proceed to why (what do I want I want my audience to do with the information I plan to provide them?). How and when will the material be presented? Only when I have these questions answered, and I stress again in as much detail as I can muster, do I begin to start developing the style of instruction and begin assembling content.

Which leads us to Common Error Number One: starting with the what before you’re firm about your audience and it characteristics. Are your end-users experienced? Are they new learners? Do they have similar levels of experience and language and comprehension skills? What’s your purpose in communicating this material? Are you introducing something new to an audience that is already well versed in the subject? Perhaps you’re offering a quick update or, at the other end of the spectrum, introducing new hires to their jobs and responsibilities. Another characteristic of the audience to be aware of is knowledge of the language audience members use in discharging their job responsibilities, especially any specialized terms or guiding operational concepts. Most importantly, you need to be precisely aware of their previous training and any known liabilities associated with those experiences.

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How and when will you, or your surrogates, be presenting this material? That is, in what format—online or in print via manuals, memos, product introduction worksheets? Does the information being presented require illustrations? Of what kind? When and how will your audience be exposed to the material—as a group, as part of an in-house training program, individually as part of web-based training or in self-paced learning modules? All of these questions need concrete answers before you begin collecting and organizing the information you expect to communicate.

Guiding Principle Number Two: never write off the cuff, which leads directly to Common Error Number Two: writing off the cuff. This happens most often with novice writers who are new to developing training materials, overloaded human resource personnel working on deadlines or under similar extenuating circumstances, and content experts who consider themselves the last word on the subject at hand. Any material, no matter how exhaustive or correct, must be organized to make it easily available to the end-user. The information may be correct and even exhaustive, but the best way to present it may not be the way it tumbles out of your mind—or off your tongue.

Make a list or outline the material you’re thinking of including to determine 1) what you’ve got and 2) whether it makes sense. Then have what you’ve developed reviewed by someone who doesn’t know the material, followed by revision and additional review. Otherwise you are in danger of committing Common Error Number Three: trying to do too much at one time.

Guiding Principle Number Three: write to your audience as equals. They are the experts in the procedure or software or whatever you will be offering them instruction on. They may be in need of an update or a retraining subsequent to the introduction of a new product, and even if they are new to this particular job, they have knowledge and experience that deserves respect. Failure to follow this principle can often lead to Common Error Number Four: writing for yourself. That is, what you think the end user should know. Assuming a proscriptive perspective is never effective, primarily because it’s easy to lose sight of your audience and the information it actually needs.

Address your audience as equals, and please don’t patronize by overexplaining simple concepts. Let audience members know that you understand their job, their working conditions, etc., and that your purpose is to build on that.

The quickest way to get someone’s attention is to use conversational language. The language used on the job. Write the way your end users speak to each other (within bounds). You still must be grammatically correct; don’t use slang or potentially offensive colloquialisms. And don’t be breezy or flip.

Guiding Princple Number Four: Select a structure and stick with it. Otherwise, you—and your audience—are in danger of getting mired in disconnected material or lost on a tangent. Include checklists of important steps, ideally in the introduction, and then lead your audience logically through each step.

Professor Strunk advises writers of all types, inclinations, and experience to choose a design that suits their purpose and the material they’re presenting and stick with it. He prescribes, and experience supports his recommendation, that the paragraph is the easiest, most fundamental, and widely recognized format for organizing expository material. That being said, be discrete about how dense you make your paragraphs. Be on the lookout for logical breaks. Keep in mind that large blocks of type turn readers off. They’re foreboding, and your audience can be frustrated and lose its way.

Start your paragraphs with a sentence that suggests what you’re going to talk about or that leads the reader from the previous paragraph into the one you’re initiating. Sometimes this can be done with one or two word cues: again, for the same reason, etc. You can also emphasize changes of subject with subheads or graphic cues. In webinars, tone of voice, other types of mannerisms (and please, not just Power Point cues) can serve this purpose.

Now for a few of Strunk’s most powerful stylistic reminders for strengthening your writing (some of the examples of dos and don’ts are so illustrative I lifted them directly from the book):

  1. Put statements, particularly instructions, in positive form and avoid “tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.” This error often results from attempts to avoid being offensive or cause controversy. Example: “He was not very often on time.” Much cleaner and more informative to say, “He’s usually late.” The little book is particularly vehement about using negatives, on the basis that people are much more comfortable about being told what is right or correct (or the way it is) rather than what isn’t. Instead of “He’s not honest,” for example, use simply, “He’s dishonest.” Use “ignored” rather than “didn’t pay attention to.” This is particularly important when you’re providing procedural instructions or explaining policy.
  2. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Don’t muddy around with the hemming and hawing of corporate speak (an easy trap to fall into if you are also called upon to develop material for outside distribution). Compare “A period of unfavorable weather set in” (which says effectively nothing), to “It rained every day for a week.” The latter not only describes what made the weather “unfavorable,” but also opens possibilities for expanding the conversation. It also provides a visual image to build on.
  3. Use the active voice because it is more direct and vigorous (and coincidentally takes up less space). Plus, as we saw in The Times’ much-criticized Tweet, the choice of voice affects meaning. Passive voice is a holdover from academia, where it is seen as a means of being balanced and fair and has been adopted as a routine characteristic of corporate speak. Without realizing it, even seasoned instructional designers and human resource people fall victim to this kind of language tick, which distracts from the efficacy of the material by leaving the reader unsure of what you’re trying to say.
  4. Omit needless words. This is a common mistake of beginning instructional writers, who are trying to cover all the bases. I’m thinking of phrases like “the question as to whether” (instead of just plain “whether”). “There is no doubt that Josh is a man who is always precise in his instructions.” Instead use “Josh is always precise.” “This is a step that is critical.” Instead use: “This step is critical.” Minimize qualifiers—rather, very, little (how much is very, or for that matter, what is little?). And that bugaboo that all writers seem to have a fondness for at some time or another, “the fact that.”
  5. Put the word or concept you want to emphasize at the end of a sentence. Wrong: “This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.” Right: “Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors.”
  6. And while we’re at it, a word or two about sentence types. Grammarians divide sentences into three types: simple, compound, and complex. In instructional writing and training materials, short, simple sentences work best. One clause with a subject and verb: “There are multiple approaches to evaluating potential effects from climate change. Each requires varying degrees of analysis.” Next up are compound sentences, two independent clauses joined by a conjunction such as “and,” “but,” “so”: “Each interaction requires input from stakeholders, and stakeholder feedback needs to be inputted into public services messages.” Complex sentences, especially those that contain parenthetical elements, stop the flow of information and disturb the reader’s attention, especially if they are a regular feature of a piece of writing. “Dynamic reservoir operations, which consist of operating rules that change based on the state of the system, have great potential.” Better: “Dynamic reservoir operations have great potential. They define a set of operating rules based on the state of the system.”
  7. Write with nouns and verb and avoid the use of adjectives and adverbs. This takes time to select the precise word. (Sometimes it’s a matter of leaving words out.) Unnecessarily convoluted: “Tightening the nut very tightly will help the screw stay securely in place.” More effective, because it’s direct and to the point (and acknowledges end user expertise): “Tighten the nut on the screw.”
  8. Don’t overwrite and don’t overstate, even in introductory material: “With the addition of new visuals, this advanced edition of software will save estimators time.” First, the sentence is full of abstractions and its claim instantly puts the reader on guard or worse, in a mindset that says, “Prove it to me.”
We are all prone to falling occasionally into these ruts in the road, but with a little awareness, and one of these books at hand, when we are called upon to draft training or instructional materials, we are better equipped to serve our readers more effectively. A final quote from the little book says it well: “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” AMEN.