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Write for learning audiences

“What makes instructional writing ‘good’”?

“What is a learner persona, and how can it help designers with instructional writing?”

“What are some best practices and common mistakes to avoid when writing for learners?"

Do learning designers need to be skilled writers to succeed? It certainly helps! While some organizations rely primarily on subject matter experts to write content, learning designers are often tasked with writing for learning audiences–in the form of participant guides, video scripts, eLearning copy, job aids, case studies, and more. General principles for writing (especially technical writing) apply, but this lesson focuses primarily on best practices and mistakes to avoid when writing for learners.

In fact, by the end of this lesson, you should be able to draft a short self-study lesson.

What makes instructional writing “good”?

Have you ever:

  • Read an article about a new concept that seemed to be written specifically for you?

  • Felt clarity after someone described a complex concept using a simple analogy?

  • Spotted a headline or statistic that caught your attention?

  • Followed a step-by-step guide to successfully solve a technology problem?

  • Listened to an audio podcast or keynote address that helped boost your confidence?

  • Lost track of time reading a history book because you “couldn’t put it down”?

  • Used an online resource that was easy to navigate and find what you were looking for?

On the flip side, have you ever:

  • Dropped a course that felt too advanced for your skill level?

  • Lost focus during a lecture because you felt you already knew the material?

  • Had to learn a skill or concept that you knew you’d never use?

  • Watched a video that felt slow or hard to follow?

  • Attended a Webinar that was bogged down with too much detail?

  • Read a job aid with terms and acronyms that you didn’t understand?

  • Tried to scan through a website or large document with lots of text but no headings?

Take a few minutes to think about why you find some instructional writing more effective and enjoyable than others. What factors made a difference for you–and do you think other learners felt the same way? Once you have identified the list of factors, divide them into two groups:

  • Factors that were required for you to learn (e.g. the writing was appropriate for your knowledge or skill level, new concepts were clearly stated and supported with examples relevant to your situation)

  • Factors that helped you have an enjoyable learning experience (e.g. storytelling, thought-provoking questions, humor)

Instructional writing can be considered “good” (or great!) when it meets both criteria: helping learners achieve objectives and making it an enjoyable experience along the way. If this sounds subjective, it’s because it is. Just like all forms of writing, the quality of instructional writing is subject to how well the learning designer meets the needs of their audience. And to know their audience, learning designers first need to conduct research.

What is a learner persona, and how can it help designers with instructional writing?

If you completed the Follow learning design frameworks lesson, you may recall that learning designers may gather data about their learning audience via focus groups, interviews, surveys, observations, and more. Analyzing learner data can generate insights about learner thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and motivation levels around a specific subject or skill.

The learning designer may then opt to create a learner persona, which is a fictional character based on real learner data. This character is referenced throughout the design and development process–in design sessions, review meetings, testing, and more–to help all team members focus on learner needs (which may otherwise be overshadowed by “louder” organizational needs).

When developing a learner persona, designers may give the character a:

  • Name

  • Goal and motivation level related to a specific topic, skill or ability

  • Description of related thoughts, feelings, behaviors

  • List of learning needs, preferences, resources, and challenges

  • A sample quote that characterizes the learner’s state of mind

For instance, below is a learner persona that LXD Factory created for aspiring instructional designers. This persona is a fictional character based on real data collected via interviews, focus groups, and surveys–and it was referenced by volunteer designers who created lessons in the Get started and Learn the basics series.

Some learning projects require only one persona; however, when designing for learners with diverse needs multiple personas may be required. Another option is to create a learner persona spectrum, which is designed to represent a range (instead of a majority) of learner characteristics. Learner persona spectrums are particularly useful when designing with inclusivity in mind.

LXD Factory created the learner persona spectrum below to characterize a range of learners–including aspiring, new, and experienced designers. This persona spectrum is referenced by volunteer designers who create lessons in LXD Factory’s advanced learning paths (e.g. Analyze), which will be completed by designers of all experience levels (or none!). In essence, this persona spectrum reminds designers to remember that they are writing for an audience with wide-ranging needs. Whereas aspiring designers may need a sequenced content approach, new or experienced designers may need to target specific skills only. This is why LXD Factory includes short, microlearning lessons–it satisfies the needs of all. (At least, that's the theory we're testing!)

What are some best practices and common mistakes to avoid when writing for learners?

Script content in a way that is both effective and enjoyable for your particular group of learners; really cater to their needs and preferences. Some of this is subjective based on your particular audience, but there are also general best practices and common mistakes to avoid to consider.

View the following presentation to learn general DO's and DONT's when writing for learners.

Summary and next steps

When writing for learners, leverage everything you’ve come to know about your target audience, and consider creating a learner persona or learner persona spectrum to help focus your work. Follow the best practices outlined in this lesson (and avoid identified mistakes) to ensure you are writing in a way that is both effective and enjoyable for learners.

Now that you are familiar with best practices and mistakes to avoid when writing for learners, continue to the next lesson in LXD Factory’s Learn the basics series: Develop multimedia.


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