Top ten tips for how to write an e-learning course in plain English

Plain English isn’t dull writing, and it’s not about banning new or long words. It’s all about using words that are easier to read and understand, and faster to write! Here are our top ten tips for writing an e-learning course in plain English.

1. Think before you write

It’s crucial to plan the structure of an e-learning course. List the topics which need to be covered. Make a note of the points you want to cover on each screen. Focus on the learning objectives – and bear them in mind as you write!

2. Keep your sentences short

Clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. Be concise. Try to stick to one idea in each sentence, and vary your writing by mixing short sentences (like the last one) with longer ones (like this one).

3. Write like you speak

One of the most effective ways to engage a learner is to use everyday English. Scrap the jargon and avoid legalese, and always explain any technical terms and acronyms. A light and conversational tone works wonders for learning.

4. Use active verbs…

Active sentences sound more crisp and punchy, and will bring life to your writing. So, for a health and safety course, instead of ‘the accident was prevented by the employee’ why not write ‘the employee prevented the accident’?

5. …but don’t ignore passive verbs

It’s tempting to steer clear of the passive voice but there are times where it may be better to use: to avoid allocating blame for example (such as ‘a mistake was made’ rather than ‘we made a mistake’), or if it simply sounds better.

6. Avoid nominalisations

Nominalisations are a type of abstract noun and are formed from verbs. They make writing really dull and difficult to read so rather than ‘the introduction for the event was presented by the team’ write ‘the team introduced the event’ instead.

7. Imagine you’re talking to the learner

One of the most effective ways to emulate the best aspects of classroom training is to involve the learner by addressing them as ‘you’. Why not make them feel even more included by saying ‘we’ – it will add a human element to your writing.

8. Give instructions

Remember! Click the image below. Take a look inside your resources folder. These are all commands and are the fastest and most direct way to give instructions. Don’t be afraid to be bossy in e-learning – you won’t scare the learner!

9. Don’t be afraid to list

As I mentioned in a previous blog, not even lists have to be boring. They are useful for splitting up information in an e-learning course and, as long as they have bullets and are logical, they will draw the learner’s attention to each point.

10. Blitz those myths

You can start a sentence with ‘but’, ‘so’ or ‘however’ because that’s how we speak. And you can end a sentence with a preposition, like ‘for’. You can also split infinitives and seize the opportunity to boldly cause grammatical controversy!

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About the author

Kim George - Instructional designer and Project lead

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  • I’m betting you don’t really mean “Avoid normalisations”.

    –the process of making a noun from a word of another grammatical class

  • Kim

    Hi Cheryl,

    Thank you for pointing that out!

    You’re right – I don’t mean normalisations, I mean nominalisations!

  • Although your overall thoughts and comments are informative, I would like to address a few comments in particular that you made about plain English in E-learning.

    I do believe that one should think before they write. An E-leaning course should be both succinct and clear. There are many people, from many different backgrounds that take E-learning courses–we must keep in mind their learning modalities when we write these courses.

    However, the suggestion that we break grammatical rules simply, “because that’s how we speak” to quote you, seems farcical.

    If we are to teach students, by modeling, then we ourselves must be the harbinger of English that is well-written and free from as many grammatical and punctual errors as possible.

    To suggest that we will allow people obtaining degrees on-line without proper use of English is that of subterfuge.

    Yes, I can understand the argument that languages change, and because of the deterioration of a language, the Romance languages arose. (q.v. Latin)

    I do not think we have traversed down this path yet, and disagree that we should lower our standards of writing E-courses to accommodate those individuals whom lack sufficient etiquette of the English language to take them.

  • Stephanie

    Interesting points Gary and we certainly have to make sure our eLearning courses use a good standard of English.

    But I agree with what I think is Kim’s thinking here, which is that the register a course is written in can have a significant effect on how engaged users are.

    When I’m writing a course I always assume that users aren’t taking it through choice, but because it is mandatory, and so I have to do whatever I can to motivate and engage them. One way to do that is to write in such a way that they don’t have to try too hard to read it. Obviously that can mean things like using shorter sentences and avoiding jargon but for me it also means adopting a natural, conversational tone (more informal than you might get in a textbook, for example).

    I don’t see this as lowering the standard of writing, but simply as creating something that is both well written and user friendly.

  • Kim

    Hi Gary, Stephanie,

    Thank you both for your comments.

    Gary – I agree; an e-learning course should definitely be both succinct and clear. I also think that adopting a natural tone as Stephanie suggests and using familiar language doesn’t mean we need to break grammatical rules.

    As a Brightwave blog mentions, it’s crucial for online writing to be clear and easily understood and I think our choice of words affects this. If someone has to try hard to interpret and understand something, then they’re not going to learn anything or be motivated to change their behaviour. Cathy Moore also supports this in her blog on the use of contractions – by writing in a ‘human’ way, we’ll enhance readability and improve learning.

    This is one of the reasons Saffron supports the Plain English Campaign and recently won an instructional design award – a key part of that course’s appeal was its conversational style of writing.

  • Great precise info, I’ve been searching on this topic for a while. Bookmarked and recommended!

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