Tips for Writing Instructional and Training Material

Tips for Writing Training Graphic

It’s not easy to write well. Or, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “Easy writing makes hard reading.”

As a writer, you want to do the difficult work so your reader doesn’t have to. And while it’s true that all types of writing are difficult, it’s also true that each type of writing presents its own special challenges. That’s definitely the case when it comes to writing instructional or training materials. So, we’ve created a list of tips and resources to help you write better, more effective training materials.

We hope you find these helpful; feel free to contribute your own ideas in the comments section below.

Please note this article REALLY is about WRITING, so it covers just a small amount of designing, developing, and delivering training materials. If you want a bigger, bird’s-eye view of designing, developing, and delivering, you may find these articles helpful:

General Writing Tips for Training Materials

The following writing tips apply to any kind of training materials: things people will read in a printed document, the narrated script of an online course course, the words on a computer screen, and more.

Know your audience (the trainees/learners)

Every aspect of creating training materials begins with knowing your audience. And so it follows it’s true when you’re writing training materials too.

Know the learners’ conversational language, their reading abilities, their culture, their amount of time available for training, their interests, and more.

Write for your training audience

Once you’ve learned about your learners, keep their learning needs and characteristics in mind while writing for them.

Write to your training audience

Use the second person and refer to the learners as “you.” Don’t ignore the audience you’re hoping to train by writing simply about work processes or machines. And don’t write about the learners in the third-person–address them directly.

Use conversational language for training

Write the same way your audience talks. A lot of people fall into an artificial, formal style when they write training materials, even though it’s harder for the audience to read. Avoid that. But remember, being conversational doesn’t mean you should include lots of slang or potentially offensive language.

Tell stories to improve training

People are “hard-wired” to enjoy and remember stories. Don’t just tell someone something–tell a story they can engage with. Stories also help to inspire the learners to apply what they learned after the training is done.

Click to read an extensive interview with Anna Sabramowicz about storytelling and training.

Put people in scenarios

People are more interested in something that’s happening to someone else or to themselves. Put the learning experience inside the kind of scenario employees will be faced with on the job.

Use short words instead of big words

When possible, avoid using big words when a shorter, more familiar word will do. For example, write “buy” instead of “purchase” and “person” instead of “individual.”

Here’s a good article about using short words.

Use short and simple sentences

Long sentences may confuse your reader. This is even more true if the sentence structure is complex. So use short, simple sentences instead.

Here’s a good resource about simple and complex sentences.

Keep the training short

There are limits to how much people can pay attention to, how much information they can process, and how much they can remember during training.

Just write about the important stuff your learners need to know. Don’t add more material simply because you think it’s interesting. Remember that everything you write should be focused on a learning objective. In training, less really is more (effective).

Here’s a good article about how people learn.

Break your piece up into smaller “chunks”

Break your content into smaller parts, or “chunks.” That’s because most people can only keep 4-7 bits of information in their short-term memory without losing the information.

Here’s a fuller explanation of chunking your instructional material.

Format your “chunks” visually for easy reading

Your computer gives you tons of tools to format those little chunks of information–use ’em.

Use headers to explain what each chunk covers, and put them in bold font. Use bulleted lists and tables to break information down so it’s easier to scan and quickly understand. Present information in parallel structures.

Here’s a fuller look at formatting written training materials to increase training effectiveness.

Write at an appropriate reading level

The average American reads at about a 7th or 8th grade level. So you should generally keep your writing at that level, too.

If you’re writing for doctors, attorneys, and engineers, write at a higher level. If you’re writing for people who don’t speak English as their first language, write at a lower level.

Most word processors, including Microsoft Word, have a tool to analyze the readability of your material.

Don’t explain things your training population already knows

Don’t insult, bore, and turn off your audience by explaining things they already know. For example, if your goal is to train them how to make a common household item, don’t start by explaining what the item is. It’s a toaster–they know what a toaster is.

Here’s more about how to keep material that’s too basic out of your training materials.

Don’t explain things your training population doesn’t need to know

It’s it’s not necessary, leave it out. For example, if you’re teaching learners to make a common household item, your training shouldn’t start with a 15-minute history of that item’s development over the past three centuries.

They just need to know how to make it. They don’t need to write a PhD dissertation about its role in society or its development throughout history.

Avoid specialized language (“jargon”) when possible

Every field has its own specialized language known as jargon. Jargon can be a useful type of shorthand or code for experts, but non-experts often don’t understand what it means.

When you can, avoid using jargon in your training.

If you must use jargon, define it

If it’s necessary to use jargon, make sure you explain it to the learners.

Write in the active voice

Active sentences tend to be shorter and less confusing. Passive sentences tend to be longer and more confusing. Stay active, my friend.

Here’s a good resource on writing in the active voice.

Use strong, descriptive verbs

Avoid using forms of “to be.” Using forms of to be, such as “is,” “are,” and “were,” is not as memorable as using strong and descriptive verbs.

Here’s a good game to help you recognize stronger verbs.

It’s OK to be funny

A little humor helps. Don’t think this is forbidden.

Of course, don’t take this too far and use your training materials as a launchpad for your career as a stand-up comic. You’re creating training material, remember? Also, although this probably goes without saying, offensive humor that insults, demeans, offends, or includes one of the “-ism’s” forbidden at work isn’t what you’re going for here.

Here’s a good article on the use of humor in training, and here’s a good example of the use of humor in training.

Be consistent with your terms

If you’re identified something as a “widget” in your introduction, keep calling it a widget throughout. Don’t suddenly call it a “whatchamacallit” in a later section just to shake things up.

Be careful with pronouns

When you refer to a noun by its name (example: refrigerator), everyone knows what you’re talking about. If you begin using pronouns (example: it) instead, though, you may confuse people. Things get even more confusing if the learners can’t tell if the “it” refers to a refrigerator or a toaster that you also mentioned.

Consider cutting down on your use of pronouns, and be careful to avoid confusion when you do use them.

It’s OK to use contractions

It’s fine to use contractions (for example, to use “don’t” instead of “do not” and “can’t” instead of “cannot”). In fact, it’s good, because it sounds more conversational.

So go ahead and use contractions–it’s good for the training.

Here’s more about using contractions in training materials.

Don’t let your subject matter expert (SME) do the writing

Subject matter experts, or SMEs, are bright people. They’re passionate experts on the topic they’re describing. This makes them prone to violate many of the rules we just discussed—even if they DO happen to be good writers, which isn’t always true. Here are some more tips on working with SMEs.

Proofread several times

Always proofread your own materials. Do it several times. Read it aloud to yourself–this can really help. Don’t just rely on your spell-checker (but yes, use it too).

Read it out loud to yourself

Careful readers may be saying “Hey, you just said that above.” And that’s true. But it bears stating again, plus several readers added that comment after reading this article (see comments below, for example), so I’m thinking maybe people missed it.

Have someone else review your writing

Even the best writers benefit from having someone else read their stuff to point out what’s clunky or confusing.

Following the rules above should go far to get you writing effective training materials. Of course, the more you learn the better you’ll be, so we’ve collected some additional resources for you below.

Writing Rules & Style Guides

This list of resources that will help you with any type of writing.

The Elements of Style

The classic high school style guide by Strunk & White that’s still relevant in all fields today.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Probably the leading style guide.

The Associated Press Style Book

More relevant for journalists, but still useful.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

A great resource for all things writing-related.

Grammar Girl

A fun and informative online guide to grammar.


An online writing app that helps you create better written materials for work. There’s a free version and a premium, paid version.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus

Or any good dictionary and thesaurus. This one is online and free, and we like their occasional informative videos.

Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications

Helpful if you’re writing about software.

More Tips for Writing Instructional & Training Material

Next, a list of resources to help you write instructional and training material. Obviously, this is nowhere near complete, but it’s still helpful.

Write and Organization for Deeper Learning by Dr. Patti Shank

A great research-based book with 28 tips based on evidence for writing more effective training and instructional materials.

Storytelling in eLearning by Anna Sabramowicz

Anna Sabramowicz is a very good instructional designer who focuses on scenario-based learning that is firmly rooted in storytelling. This is a series of videos to help you get started.

“10 Types of Writing for eLearning” by Connie Malamed

A nice overview of the different styles of writing required in e-learning.

“8 Tips for Better Writing,” by Connie Malamed

8 simple-yet-effective tips from a journalist.

“Less Text, More Learning” by Cathy Moore

A nice explanation of why fewer words = more learning.

“Why You Do Not Want to Sound Like a Robot” by Cathy Moore

An argument for conversational language—including contractions!

“How to Recognize Elearning Bloat” by Cathy Moore

How to know when you’re writing too much.

“How to Get Everyone to Write Like Ernest Hemingway” by Cathy Moore

Good arguments in favor of lower reading levels.

“No More Spilled Ink: Writing for Instructional Design” by Connie Malamed

A great overview of writing issues for instructional designers.

“Writing Styles for eLearning Narration” by Tim Slade

A thoughtful, helpful discussion of writing for e-learning.

“Why You Need Scenario-Based e-Learning” by Connie Malamed

A podcast during which one of my favorite instructional designers, Connie Malamed, discusses the importance of scenarios in e-learning with another great instructional designer, Ruth Colvin Clark. Not as directly related to writing style as the other comments and links above, but worth your time nonetheless.

“How to Write Compelling Stories” by Connie Malamed

Another podcast hosted by Connie Malamed. In this one, she discussed the importance of storytelling in instructional materials and talks with noted author and storytelling expert Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story.

Using Plain English to Write eLearning Courses” by Saffron Interactive/The Spicy Learning Blog

Tips along the lines of the ones offered in this article.

What Are YOUR Thoughts about Writing Training Materials?

So, what about you? Have any good tips or resources for writing instructional or training materials? If so, we’d love to see them below in the comments section.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

21 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Instructional and Training Material

  1. Excellent list. I would add one more, which is “Know your subject”. Not only is it dangerous to leave subject matter expertise to the SME for the reasons you say – they will break all the rules. More important, it is not possible to teach unless you first understand. To take a simple exmaple, the skill in writing a good MCQ (jargon?) is in the distractors (more jargon?).

  2. Peter – good point. You want both areas to be very strong. Ideally, you want expert understanding of your subject and you want clear, easy-to-understand communication. Too many SMEs disregard the clear communication part, and too many instructional writers disregard the understanding-your-subject part. For the best learning results, you need both elements to be strong.

    1. John, glad you liked it.

      Keep tuned for some future posts on story-based learning and scenario-based learning. Also, you may find our post on Formatting Written Training Materials interesting and the ones on Visuals for training as well.


  3. Great list, Jeffrey. For those interested in writing dialogue for scenarios or videos, I’d suggest some of the screenwriting supports or taking a screenwriting class, and reading good scripts to get a feel for timing and cadence. In addition, be sure to take time to listen to natural speech and content experts, to avoid ‘wooden’ or unnatural-sounding dialogue. Finally, if recording audio or video, use professionals when the stakes are high, and rehearse!

    1. Candice, glad you liked it.

      I like your points about dialogue too, including taking a class.

      Connie Malamed has some good stuff on her blog about that. Here’s a quick article:

      In addition, I am almost 100% sure she has a long downloadable PDF about different types of ID writing that includes what you’re talking about, but I can’t seem to find it on her web page. Sorry about that.

  4. Excellent guidance and resources, thank you. A test-read aloud is a great idea. In voice work, we get some scripts that are a challenge to read aloud! But well-crafted material, even if aimed at print, is usually an immediate pleasure to narrate: so it’s a good litmus test.

    1. Howard, good point.

      Actually, I try to do that myself, actually (although I didn’t mention it in the article and I struggle to do it now because I work in a more public setting–cubeland!), and several people made the same point in discussions about this article in LinkedIn groups. I’m going to go ahead and add that to the list. Thanks again.

      1. LOL.

        I went into the post to add the point about reading aloud, and noticed it was mentioned near the bottom in the section about proofreading your own stuff.

        But it’s clearly an important point, and more than one reader has mentioned the importance of reading aloud, so I added a brand new point for that. Thanks again!

        1. Great! And it has value for anyone who prepares copy for voice:
          read it out yourself, expel tongue twisters and homophones, check timing (always longer than silent read) and of course follow the tips that grace this blog – particularly on brevity!
          By the way, the maximum tolerable length for unsupported talking used to be 15 minutes (BBC radio research). This is now down to eight.

          1. “Unsupported talking” means what–simply listening to a voice, such as on radio or an audio recording?

            Interesting that it’s changed over time, though not shocking.

            I wonder what it would have been way back in the time of oral storytellers…

          2. Jeffrey, hello. Yes, the BBC arrived at its 15 minutes way back, in the 40s I think, when a talk really was a TALK. No music or slides or commercial breaks. I can’t recall now where I saw the modern revise to 8 minutes, but it was a respectable forum. On the very rare occasion I’m asked to talk with an audience about something, I pause at ten minutes max information before developing a discussion. And if anything it’s better to begin with one.

            As for traditional storytelling by wonderfully gifted people who breathe life and passion into something authentic – that’s quite different. Bring it on, yes! Standup comedians are incredibly engaging too. In the educational context, Sir Ken Robinson comes to mind with his long and witty TED talks on stage – though he does use visuals.

  5. An excellent list and, except for the items specific to instructional design, applies to any type of writing.

    I would add one point to knowing and writing for your audience. Once I understand who they are and what their needs are, I try and take the viewpoint of the audience. If I were learning about the subject (and, as an ID, I actually am), what would I want to know and how would I want to hear about it?

    Also, about understanding the material yourself… I don’t know you how could possibly write about a subject with which you weren’t familiar. Besides doing some of my own research, I’ve literally tortured SMEs until they’ve explained things so I can understand them. 🙂 One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that, because they know the material so well, they make assumptions about what others already know. And, as the song goes, “it ain’t necessarily so.” There are often leaps and holes in the material they provide, and I always ensure I understand how they got from one point to the next. They’re often surprised by what I ask them to explain. But when I get all the information, I ask the final question: “Would they (the audience) already know this?” The answer is usually “no.” This generally goes a long way to training a SME on being a SME, and makes my job a little easier.:-)

    1. Marlene, I agree, trying to put yourself “in the shoes” of the learner is critical.

      And yes, on the flip-side, you have to do that while also becoming a bit of a mini-expert (or mini-SME), as ultimately you DO have to understand the topic as well.

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