Writing Instructional Content

Over the past few months, I have experienced my fair share of finger cramps from typing on the keyboard. I have written short stories, storyboards, manual instructions, a workbook, and a professional development course. Writing is one of my great passions, and like anything worth doing, it takes dedication and a trust in the “process.” Even if part of the process means staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes!

The writing I do now is very different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s different from the essays and personal reflections I had grown comfortable with. Nowadays, my writing is for an audience of diverse learners. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about writing instructional content.

Use Plain Language

You know what I really learned? I love–LOVE–using adjectives and adverbs! I didn’t realize it until I used Hemingway Editor, which is a tool I’ll describe later on. Now that I’m aware of this *ahem* issue, I’ve been focusing on getting rid of the excess and writing as simply as possible. Using adjectives and big words adds unnecessary baggage to people’s cognitive loads.

In The Measure of My Powers (highly recommend), Jackie Kai Ellis describes how she learned to write well. First, she learned that the beauty of reading is the experience of piecing together the meaning for oneself. So she applied that lesson to her writing. Instead of telling readers that a flower is beautiful, she would describe the delicate petals and its soft purple hues. I’ve taken this message to heart and when possible, try to show readers rather than tell them (in as plain language as possible).

Use Parallel Structure

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped students edit their papers. When I used to help particularly strong writers who already had solid ideas, I would focus on writing conventions like parallel structure. I can spot it a paragraph away in other people’s writing, but in my own writing, these errors seem to become invisible!

Here is an example of parallel structure:

  • Run to the post office.
  • Deliver the letter.
  • Treat yourself to pizza afterwards.

Each bullet begins with a verb, making these sentences parallel in structure. If one of the words began with a noun, it would look awkward. In Grammar Girl’s post, she describes that our brains are wired for patterns. Using patterns such as parallel structure is better for learning!

Remember the Active Voice

Oh man, this one is tough for me! For some reason, it feels so natural to write in the passive voice. Here is an example:

The form was completed by an office worker.

In this case, the thing being acted on (the object) comes first, followed by the actor at the end (the subject). When the sentence is active, the subject precedes the object, like this:

The office worker completed the form.

It takes less brain power to read an active sentence. Plus, a sentence written in the active voice is much clearer!

Consider the Reading Level

When I write instructional content, I aim for a Grade 8-10 reading level. Of course, this totally depends on the context for which I am writing. I have found that writing at this level for my current learners works well for them.

Microsoft Word has a build in readability test called Flesch-Kincaid. I have found many issues using this test. For one thing, it has problems identifying passive sentences. As well, it’s not always correct and can sometimes make your writing more confusing. A good tool I use is Hemingway Editor. You simply paste the text into the editor box, and the app provides helpful information about passive sentences and overall readability.

I have noticed that I sometimes obsess over my writing when I use the Hemingway Editor app. I wish I could find the study, but I remember reading that teaching grammar can actually have an adverse effect on students’ grammar. When we teach the rules in isolation, we lose sight of the big picture. This is what sometimes happens when I use the app. I focus on the sentences in the little box and sometimes the outcome becomes disjointed from the rest of my writing. This is one thing to consider when using these tools!

Write Conversationally

Although learners aren’t our “bros,” I find that writing as if in conversation with the reader or writing dialogue can help them connect to the material. Of course, it totally depends on the audience and purpose of writing. But 9 times out of 10, I would much rather read something written in a pleasant, conversational tone than something that sounds like it was written for an encyclopedia.

A good way to check the writing’s tone is to read it out loud. And when you’re writing, don’t try and make it sound perfect and squeaky clean. I think many learners appreciate the “realness” of a piece, so long as it stays on topic.

Use Graphics

Because I love writing, I often focus on the visuals last. I am trying to get out of this bad habit, but it takes a great deal of effort. Whenever I sit down to write something, I try to ask, “Is this the best way to introduce this material? Perhaps a visual or simple diagram would do the trick instead!” I’m not knocking the power of the written word, but people really do digest material more readily through simple graphics.


Laptop image taken from Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/vZJdYl5JVXY

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