Teaching Online: 5 Tips for Concise Writing
In my last post, I discussed the importance of writing clear, concise instructions. Our online students are busy professionals, so we owe it to them to be as straightforward and unambiguous with our language as possible.
Nonetheless, writing concisely can be a challenge. Even the most seasoned Instructional Designers wrestle with the balance of delivering succinct but comprehensive content.
These are five of my go-to editing strategies for squishing unruly sentences:
- Focus on the who and the what.
At the risk of sounding like an English teacher, I’m going to suggest that you focus on the subject and the verb. The subject is your who or what. The verb is your action, or what the what is doing. Everything else is decoration that should be used sparingly.
When you use a specific subject and vivid action verb, you’ll find that many of the other words are unnecessary.
Before: For the most part, individuals in graduate classes are appreciative of conciseness.
After: Graduate students generally appreciate conciseness.
Likewise, beginning with the who or the what will ensure active writing.
Before: Assignments should be submitted by you before midnight on Friday.
After: You should submit your assignment by midnight on Friday.
Even Better: Submit your assignment by midnight on Friday. (In this imperative sentence, “you” is the implied subject.)
Before: Superintendents will be interviewed by the teachers they work for.
After: Teachers will interview their superintendents.
- Get rid of the prepositional phrases.
Prepositions are those little words like to, of, in, among, around, beyond, toward, and with that show a relationship between a noun and the rest of the sentence. A prepositional phrase will begin with a preposition and end with a noun.
On the one hand, prepositional phrases are kind of cool, as they allow writers to diversify their language. When overused, however, prepositional phrases make writing wordy and difficult to follow. While you may not be able to eliminate all prepositional phrases, your writing will be clearer if you minimize their use.
Before: The success of the pilot program is reflected in the number of children in elementary school who are healthy.
After: The number of healthy elementary students reflects the pilot program’s success.
Before: Improvements in your writing will be seen if you remove prepositional phrases that aren’t necessary.
After: Removing unnecessary prepositional phrases will improve your writing.
- Avoid redundancies
Due to the sheer number of words, English is one of the most flexible languages in the world. Never use two or more when only one is necessary.
Before: Write a biographical essay of your life.
After: Write a biography.
Before: Reach a consensus of opinion with your group members.
After: Reach a consensus with your group members.
- Avoid unnecessary modifiers.
While occasional adjectives and adverbs can clarify language, they can also add clutter. In particular, the overuse of intensifiers like extremely, very, and quite can create wordiness. Remove them if they don’t add to clarity..
Before: Next, quickly skim the article.
After: Next, skim the article.
Before: To get started with your reflective writing assignment, imagine a mental picture of a time when you found learning to be extremely difficult.
After: As you begin your reflection, remember a time when learning was difficult.
- Be specific.
Finally, with so many wonderful word choices, you can afford to be choosy.
Before: As you complete the analysis, be keep in mind the methods and procedures that direct the processes of our judicial system.
After: As you complete the analysis, consider the common processes of the judiciary.
Before: Your assigned reading for the course will describe many of the problems and mistakes that can make projects more difficult for students than they need to be.
After: Your assigned course reading describes many project pitfalls students may encounter.
So much of what we provide to our online students — whether as faculty members or Instructional Designers — depends the written word, so clear communication is key. The good news is that, once we hone in on what we really want to say, we can always consider adding more!