Nicole Papaioannou Lugara
How to Get Your IDs to Write Better
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
I saw a question posed this morning that rang all the alarm bells inside my head:
“How do you handle IDs with poor writing/development skills?”
As someone who taught writing to undergraduates, spent an entire PhD’s worth of work thinking about how people learn to and use writing, and managed instructional designers, I wanted to write an essay.
Since social media comments aren't really the place for that, this post is for anyone struggling with the same issue or IDs who want to improve their writing on the job.
Start With You
What are your expectations for writing? Have you clarified them? Have you offered some kind of rubric or explanation of those expectations? Do you have a style guide that clearly defines the tone and voice?
If not, those are good places to start.
You might have them read more ID books, QA courses and reflect on the structures, or take some writing classes (Scripting Voiceover for Video is not a bad place to start).
Added bonus: Check out this blog post from Your ID. Read Nancy Sommers' Responding to Student Writing and Linda Flowers' and John Hayes' The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem.
Think about how you would give feedback on any other task. Do you nitpick at every little thing, or do you focus on the important and relevant issues, knowing that the rest will likely fall into place as a result?
This is the same principle that applies to providing feedback on writing. Focus on HOCs and LOCs (higher order concerns and lower order concerns). Higher order concerns focus on idea-related issues, like clarity, organization, evidence, and flow of ideas. Lower order concerns are things like syntax and mechanics.
Often when new managers mark up documents from “poor writers” (a term I hate), they create papers that have so much red lining, it looks a sacrificial right was performed. Writers get confused. They don’t know where to focus their energy. They usually go for the low-hanging fruit, fixing spelling errors and sentences, rather than the big ideas.
The thing is… when the big ideas get fixed, these lower order concerns often fall into place. Writing is a product of thinking. When our thinking is unclear-- maybe we don’t understand or lack confidence in our understanding of the subject matter, for example-- our writing is unclear.
There are two times when HOCs are less important than LOCs:
There’s a pattern of error that you can identify and provide a resource to help avoid (e.g., a Grammar Girl link for explaining the difference between “which” and “that”).
It’s due in 5 minutes, and this is just supposed to be a polishing pass. At that point, you are copyediting, not really providing feedback.
Model and Meta
Show them what good writing looks like, ask them to provide examples of training they think is amazingly done, and then have them deconstruct it. In fact, have them write about the writing. Walk them through how you would deconstruct it. What makes the writing so great? These metacognitive exercises will help them build their skills through practice and build tools to improve their writing.
While we're on the subject of models... formalized models are also great tools, as we know as IDs. As much as we all hate the 5 paragraph essay, most of us who learned to write in a US high school know what one is and how to use the model.
You might consider leveraging ID models in a micro-context. For example, how could you use Merrill's First Principles of Instruction to build a single script?
Let Them Experience User Response
User testing, QA feedback, and peer reviews are all great ways for IDs to learn more about how users respond to their writer. That information helps the ID create the voice of the user in their mind as they write, inferring what might ensure they understand, confuse them, upset them, etc.
This strategy can be challenging, though, because without training users to give feedback or ensuring there's some kind of emotional buffer, feedback can be overly critical, overly kind, or just way off base, and it can really shake the confidence of a developing instructional designer.
Give Them Practice Time
If the only time they write is in high stakes situations (stuff is due for a project), then they don’t really have a lot of time to make mistakes and learn from them. Give them some low stakes opportunities to work on their skills.
You might start with things they know and ask them to blog. This is a good diagnostic tool, which will tell you if the issue is writing as a skill or their understanding of the content they’re being asked to work with as an instructional designer.
Job Performance is Still Important
I’ll end with a caveat: It is my strong belief that anyone can learn to write well with practice, strategic feedback, and opportunities for reflection. However, you cannot always learn to do it well in the time frame required for a job. There is a certain level of professional competency that must be met in order for a person to be able to do the job.
Consider how much time you have to get a person up to speed, your ability to coach and support them, and their willingness to be coached. Sometimes, they’re just not right for an ID role yet, or maybe not right for that role (maybe highly technical content is just too complex for them right now). And that’s ok. You do have work that needs to get done, and their teammates shouldn’t have to pick up the slack long-term. They are being compensated for their talents, and there are plenty of other things they can do in the learning industry while they work on their skills if writing is just not there yet.
Want to work on writing for instructional design?
Check out Scripting Voiceover for Video - the self-study course with opportunities for real feedback on your writing.