Now that we’re a few weeks into the semester, let’s revisit a topic that fits into just about every aspect of a course – creating clear content. Whether you’re writing a quick note for your students or a longer piece to use in your course, you’ll need your message to be easily understood. Including just enough information to be clear without over-explaining can be a fine line to walk. Let’s look at some tips for writing content that will keep students focused on the concepts and not slowed down because of word choice or structure.
1. Write with a clear purpose.
Know what your goal is before you start writing. Are you sharing information or explaining a new concept? Encouraging your students? Reminding them about something they need to pay special attention to?
Write a clear subject line for an announcement or a clear title for course content. Students should be able to glance at either and understand what the content will be, and this will help them if they need to revisit something later.
When you’re writing, make sure your main idea is stated clearly. Limit yourself to a single clear main idea and the appropriate number of subpoints (odd numbers are typically better, especially three or five subpoints).
2. Be brief.
More words doesn’t necessarily mean that the students will understand your message better. Use the fewest number of words you can while still keeping your meaning intact. Keep your sentences on the shorter side. A well-structured, long sentence can be appropriate, but it’s easier for those to meander and be confusing.
In addition to keeping your sentences brief, keep your paragraphs short (also referred to as “chunking”). Long paragraphs can seem daunting, but chunking makes your writing easy-to-follow and less intimidating. Consider using headings and lists to present your ideas in an easily understandable manner.
3. Write in plain language.
Writing in simple, clear language will help you with point 2. If you’re having trouble expressing your ideas in the simplest way possible, imagine you’re explaining them aloud to one of your students and write your post the way you’d say it. Of course, you’ll want to give it a re-read before you hit “send” or “publish.”Here’s a couple specific tips:
- Avoid passive voice. Passive voice typically requires more words and can add to confusion. Check out the difference between these two sentences:
- The paper will be submitted by students by 11pm Sunday. (passive)
- Students will submit their papers by 11pm Sunday. (active)
Note: You can also directly address your students.
“You will submit your paper by 11pm Sunday.” or “Submit your paper by 11pm Sunday” (both active, the second slightly shorter with the implied subject)
- Choose the appropriate tone. You can write formally or informally, depending on your relationship with your students. But with either, keep your content professional and friendly.
- Don’t create barriers with your language. Choose simple words to get your point across.
Writing in plain language helps everyone, but it is especially beneficial for students whose first language is not English. Avoid jargon unless it’s absolutely necessary – and even then, make sure you clearly define your terms. Using simple language creates fewer opportunities for confusion.
Last published February 2, 2022. Updated to expand on the section about plain language.