Communication is key to learning and development projects – from achieving the learning objectives to creating a professional brand for the L&D team within the organization you’re working for, how you communicate is everything. However, if you’ve been in L&D for some time, it may be years since your last English class where you learned about grammar and punctuation. This article will give you a refresher as well as some tips and best practices when editing and proofreading content in your L&D role.
Organizational Style and Branding
Looking at Existing Style Guides
Before you start creating your own parameters for editing and proofreading, you should check to see if the organization has a branding or style guide. This may have specific writing and editing rules that have been adopted at the organization. By following an organizational branding or style guide first, you can make sure there is consistency across the business.
You may also want to check if the L&D department has its own style guide. If you’re part of a learning team, you might want to start taking notes while you read this and as you start your learning projects so that you can create a style guide.
Microcopy on Interfaces
Another thing you want to consider as you’re editing and writing is how you’re naming things on the interfaces you use for learning. This includes buttons and menus in authoring tools, titles on slides, and how courses and modules are named in the learning management system. First, you want to create a system that is consistent throughout the team. Make sure all of the menu options read the same if you’re using different authoring tools or have different people creating content on the team. Of course, you can check these items during your proofreading review, but making sure they are consistent from the start is a great way to reduce your learner’s cognitive load and create consistent branding across learning materials.
The Difference Between Editing and Proofreading
Editing consists of a higher-level content check that is intended to improve the overall quality of the writing, whereas proofreading is a more detailed look at the consistency of the writing. Editing should happen earlier in the process of creating learning materials – somewhere between the design and development phase when you draft slides, scripts, or other text-based material. Before you submit the draft for review, you should edit, or editing should be part of the draft review process. Proofreading should happen closer to project implementation – when you’re getting the project ready for its final draft.
Here are some additional differences:
- Focused on writing quality
- High-level content check
- Catches some mechanical errors
- Considers style choices
- Focused on writing consistency
- Detailed clarity check
- Perfects mechanics
- Prepares for final “publishing”
In the following sections, we’ll go into more detail about what things you should specifically consider as an L&D professional during editing and proofreading.
When you’re editing, you should be performing a basic grammar and spelling check. At this point, you don’t need to be too detailed, but you should keep an eye out for glaring errors in grammar or spelling. Built-in spelling checks in your software or browser can help you perform these high-level checks, but you should also plan for a more detailed review when you proofread the materials.
As mentioned previously, if the organization has a particular style guide, there may be rules they want you to follow with regard to tone. For example, a company’s tone or voice may be “casual” or “authoritative” depending on the organization and how they want to be viewed. Keep in mind, however, that these rules may have been created specifically for marketing or sales copy if those are the departments who own and update the style guide. In that case, you should consider what might be different when writing for educational purposes. Even the topic should be taken into consideration because there are some topics, such as organizational security and ethics, that should be taken more seriously.
There are some style choices that you can make that will likely impact how you write for the organization and for learners. For example, how you define acronyms at their first use and how you treat bulleted lists are considered stylistic choices – meaning there are multiple accepted ways to treat these things. Whether you express titles in sentence case (where only the first word is capitalized) or title case (where every major word is capitalized) is another example of a style choice. Making these choices consistent throughout the materials created will not only make things easier to read, but they’ll make them easier to recognize as the team’s work.
One last tip – every organization and every industry uses what is called jargon – or words that are understood and accepted by people in a certain field or industry but may be harder for others to understand. Before using the jargon of the industry or field in learning materials, make sure you’re considering the audience. For example, if you’re creating a course for new hires, you may want to define more jargon than you would if you were creating an advanced technical course for people who are experts in the field.
Active versus Passive Voice
Active voice, where the subject is performing the action is commonly considered to be the best, most straightforward way to communicate. However, there’s also a time and place for passive voice in writing, especially in writing for the business. When the action is more important than the person performing the action, it’s okay to use passive voice.
Let’s consider an example. If I am working on a self-paced course for new managers, I might run across information about processes – for this example, we’ll say that all new managers need to have performance conversations with their employees quarterly. The information about the performance conversations and the process of having a conversation with employees is more important than the manager performing the action in this case.
In an active voice, this would read, “You should have performance conversations with your employees every quarter to give them critical feedback on their work.” This sentence is fine, but it is also acceptable to use passive voice here, “Performance conversations should be held quarterly so that employees can receive critical feedback on their work.” In fact, the way this is worded places more importance on the employee as the target of the performance conversation than on the manager.
Use your discretion when using active and passive voice, and consider the delivery method as well. A text-based document may come across differently than a narrated video.
When editing, you want to check how the content is organized or how it flows from one idea to another. Some common ways to structure content include:
- Chronological order – in order of time, from first to last
- Logical order – in the order in which the learner needs to understand things for them to make sense
- Spatial order – best used for teaching products or software, spatial order moves from left to right or up to down
- Order of importance – where the most important ideas come first
You also want to make sure the writing flows. Are there transitions from one main idea to the next, or is there an abrupt shift in content? Simple transition sentences that begin with phrases such as “in the next section, we’ll discuss...” can help to create more seamless transitions in content.
It’s also important, as always, to consider accessibility and inclusion when editing.
Some of the learners may have a higher reading level than others, so you may want to account for readability. Some learners may speak English as a second, third, or even a fourth language and may have a much higher reading level in their native language. There are readability checkers (some listed in the Helpful Resources section of this article) that will help you achieve a desired reading level. You should also avoid idioms, clichés, and slang because these can be personal or geographical – and you could alienate some of the learners by using them.
You should also avoid the use of gendered words. This is best practice in copywriting and editing everywhere. For example, instead of man-made, you might say artificial or handmade. Instead of mailman, you might say mail person or mail carrier.
Good writing reduces cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory we use. When learning, it’s important to save as much cognitive load as possible for the learning objectives. There are multiple ways to reduce cognitive load while creating learning materials, but we’ll specifically talk about the ways we can edit content to reduce cognitive load for our learners here.
You can reduce cognitive load by considering the wordiness of the text you’re using. Can you say the same thing in fewer words? Some grammar tools will help you by making suggestions to be more concise, replacing phrases such as “with regard to” with “about” and so on. But you can also read for this while editing – no one wants to read a slide that is a wall of text or view a job aid that is all text with barely any visual element.
You also want to consider varying sentence length.Obviously, you want to avoid run-on sentences, but complex sentences can be difficult for readers to parse. Having multiple complex sentences in a row can create a barrier to understanding for readers.
I told you we would revisit grammar and spelling! You should check for grammar and spelling when you edit and when you proofread to make sure you catch any errors. Error-free content comes across as more professional and holds a higher level of credibility, so the more you can check your work for grammar and spelling, the better.
Commas. Periods. Colons. Semi-colons. Hyphens. Are you using all of these correctly in your work? There are rules for each, and we’ll provide some helpful resources at the end of this article to give you a refresher. Spoiler alert: you don’t put a comma every time you take a breath, and you certainly don’t need it before every instance of “and” or “but.”
Of course, there are also punctuation choices that are a matter of style and not bound by one set of rules, such as whether or not you punctuate the end of bulleted lists, how you punctuate references, and whether or not you use the Oxford comma (we’ll let you have that fight among the team and reviewers). However, it should be consistent throughout.
Checking for consistent capitalization should also be part of the proofreading process. As mentioned previously, what are the style decisions you’ve made about capital letters? You should follow these with titles, subtitles, headings and more. Of course, you should also capitalize proper nouns and avoid common capitalization mistakes. However, there may be particular words that folks in the organization are always asked to capitalize – that have to do with roles or products – so you should pay attention to what these are as well to create a consistent experience across the business.
You also want to take some time to look at the overall appearance of the text. Avoid widows and orphans – when you have words hanging out by themselves at the top of a page or at the bottom of a paragraph. You can do this by changing the wording or even the font size, but it makes the text look cleaner and makes it easier to read. Make sure that your font and font size is consistent throughout materials.
Re-Reading Your Work
It’s great to get another set of eyes on your work. Sometimes, when we write something, we overlook our own errors because we know what we meant to say. Having a fresh set of eyes can help catch more mistakes and errors.
However, it may not always be possible to have someone else edit or proofread your work. So, here are some common tips for catching your own errors:
- Reading backwards – not literally backwards, but if you read your work backwards from the last sentence to the first or the last paragraph to the first, it can help you identify errors
- Reading out loud – reading your work out loud can help you decide if something sounds clunky or off, but it may highlight mistakes as well – it can also be a good practice if the writing you’re reading aloud will be narrated in the future
- Printing it out – if you wrote it on a computer, it can be helpful to print a copy and mark it with a red pen, giving you a different perspective of the work
- Hemingway App – a tool that helps make your writing clearer and includes a word counter and readability check (the online version is free, but you can purchase a desktop version)
- Grammarly – a tool helps make your writing clear and free from mistakes, and it has a mobile and desktop version. You can get started for free or pay for the Pro version.
- Grammar Girl – A website and blog where you can find helpful tips, checklists, and common errors
Be sure to visit the Useful Stuff website for more resources on writing for L&D.