Instructional Writing: Combining Style and Precision


You’ve just crafted the perfect learning strategy to meet your instructional objectives, but when it comes to writing content, you draw a blank. How do you convey your understanding of raw content without boring your future learners? 

By Jean-Philippe Côté, Instructional Designer at ellicom

Writer’s block. It’s happened to the best of us. Whether narrated, printed on paper, or viewed on a computer screen, you instinctively know that the words in an online learning solution must be precise, concise and persuasive. But what’s the best way to increase the reach and accuracy of your texts? Luckily, several unwritten rules exist.

  1. Be simple and effective

As an e-learning professional, you are often required to simplify highly-technical processes, made up of equally complex steps.

The hard part of this writing style is explaining these steps in a way that everyone can understand, while adding a creative twist to keep your learners engaged. Not only that, but you also need to hone in on your client’s real needs. What’s a writer to do?

As a general rule, online learning isn’t the place to let your literary impulses run free. Avoid unnecessary jargon, empty phrases, excessive adjectives and redundant formulations.

Go for a clean and simple style, without bells and whistles, and make sure to provide clear and precise instructions to get straight to the point. Your learners’ time is precious.

  1. Be efficient and compelling

Even the most educated audience will have a hard time following along if your screens are overloaded with confusing text and heavy syntax.

This is especially true if your learning program is deployed on a mobile platform, where space is limited.

Generally speaking, you should favour simple sentences over complex ones to get your idea across. This structure will allow you to keep a single verb per sentence and use 15 words or less to get your idea across. Essentially, you’ll want to aim for:

  • 1 statement per sentence
  • 1 general idea per paragraph
  • 1 topic per screen

Not only does this allow you to effectively structure your ideas, it ensures that the duration of your screen or even your entire module respects the criteria you initially established for yourself.

  1. Tell a story

Presenting your ideas in a structured manner is one thing, but these ideas must form a coherent whole. Use connecting words and discourse markers to structure your information in a sequential manner.

Your learners will appreciate these connecting words, both narrated and onscreen, since they will be better able to gauge their progress.

Of course, punctuation plays a leading role when linking your ideas together. It is also a powerful tool to speed up or slow down the pace of a learning module, especially if you work with audiovisual media (video, animation, narration, etc.).

  1. Make some noise

Make it a habit to read your final text out loud and to look out for passages that may be confusing. A properly placed comma will give your learners a well-deserved break and your narrator will thank you too!

  1. Invite your learner to embark on an adventure

Writing is one of the best communication methods for immersing learners into a virtual universe. But make sure to use your words wisely: nobody wants to be lectured at! This can come off as boring and even condescending.

To remedy the issue, address your learner by breaking the fourth wall (the screen) of your online learning:

  • Use an active voice (where your subject performs the action) rather than a passive voice (where your subject receives the action).
  • Use the pronoun “you” to personalize your content and make it more accessible.
  • Don’t hesitate to create a bold, daring, and even humorous introduction in order to attract your learners’ attention and incite them to continue with their progress.

With little effort (and little cost), you will successfully create an immersive and attractive learning program.


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Clark Colvin, Ruth and Mayer, Richard E. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, 2e edition, Pfeiffer, San Francisco, 2007.

Trantham, E. 5 Common Traps That Snare the Unwary E-Learning Content Writer,