3 Tips for Writing Instructional Content

When my children were in the second grade, one of their assignments was to prepare a “how-to” presentation. They were to pick a simple task: making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, say, or folding a paper airplane. They then needed to assemble all the required ingredients or components, write out the process steps on note cards, and demonstrate the procedure to the class. Without fail, the assignment—and the task—turned out to be a bit more complicated than they expected.
Whether your organization offers certifications or wants to provide training for staff, writing instructional content can present special challenges. Here are a few tips to help keep training materials clear and concise.

#1: Make your objectives actionable

Formal instructional courses typically present a list of objectives. These training goals specify skills and capabilities that learners will have after finishing the course. As you write these, aim to make each item actionable. Think of it this way: If you learn a skill, you want to be able to prove to others that you have a true grasp on the process and can perform it as needed.
Actionable objectives include things like listing, diagramming, assembling, illustrating, and explaining. Understanding? Not so much. You can’t demonstrate understanding without doing something else—like listing, assembling, and so on. That something else is your true objective.
Present the objectives as active commands, and try to keep them brief. For example, an objective list for this post might include these goals:

  • Prepare an instructional document
  • List the necessary parts of a training course
  • Write a clear list of learning objectives

Depending on the length of your content, you might have only one list of objectives, or you might have several at different levels: course, module or chapter, and lesson. You can include the list again at the conclusion of a training segment to help learners verify that they’ve gained the necessary knowledge.

#2: Put everything in order

Order is a necessary component of training. Putting things in logical, repeatable order can help learners get through material more quickly and with less confusion. Some rules of thumb:

  • Make lists parallel. For example, if some of the bullet items in a list are full sentences, make sure that all the items are full sentences.
  • Tie objectives to chapters, lessons, or tasks. If you have five objectives in a module, make a lesson for each objective. Learners will be able to tell immediately what they will learn to do in each lesson.
  • Be sure you use the same numbering scheme for tasks and steps throughout the document.

Consistency is key. Suppose you have a training document with five lessons. The first three lessons include a hands-on exercise, but the fourth doesn’t. Rather than simply not having any information about an exercise for that lesson, include a section with a statement such as “This lesson does not contain an exercise.”

#3: Take one step at a time

Whenever your content contains step-by-step instructions, it can be tempting to take shortcuts. But to keep learners on track, do your best to assign a separate step to each and every action. At the very least, use nested lists to keep larger steps organized. Also try to break up tasks to avoid having more than a few dozen steps in any one task.
Take my kids’ PB&J sandwich instruction. Here’s what a true step-by-step might look like:

  1. Clean your kitchen counter.
  2. Collect your utensils:
    • Cutting board
    • Butter knife
    • Cutting knife
    • Plate

Note: Ask an adult to handle the cutting knife.

  1. Collect your ingredients:
    • Sliced bread
    • Peanut butter
    • Jelly
  2. Place two slices of bread side-by-side on the cutting board.

See where we’re going? But what if the instructions looked like this:

  1. Get the ingredients you need to make the sandwich.
  2. Put the bread on the cutting board, put the peanut butter on the bread, add the jelly.
  3. Put the knife in the sink.

Not enough information, combined with too many actions in one step, can lead to confusion and frustrated learners.

Next steps: Testing and editing

An important part of writing instructional content is including a solid copy edit as well as testing out the steps to identify those that might be unclear or missing. If you need help, give Dragonfly a call.
This post was written by Lisa Péré, a writing manager at Dragonfly Editorial.

A person with long hair and glasses bites a pencil in frustration while looking at a laptop screen


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