When It Comes To "Good" Writing, Who's Right?

How To Make Your Writing Serve Your Audience
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Summary: Writing is the backbone of an engaging learner experience. But who determines what is "good" writing? And how can you understand what that looks like?

How To Make Your Writing Serve Your Audience

A few years ago when I was attending a conference in Germany, I was asked to join the event communications team. They needed a first-language English speaker to edit their content. No problem, I thought. Well, I was wrong.

Most of the articles I needed to edit had first been written in German and then translated to English. As I read through the first few, I was convinced that no first-language English speaker would want to read them. There was no hook. No WIIFM. No stories. No descriptive language. Just facts that communicated the essentials and nothing more. I wondered if I should simply edit grammar and spelling for readability or try to make it into something more appealing. I think I ended up doing a bit of both.

Seeing Canadian

It was confusing at the time, but I learned something important from that experience: good writing is culturally defined. While at first I doubted the writing skills of my German counterparts, I now see that they were doing an excellent job according to how they had been taught. For their audience, the articles would have been good. I was simply seeing the work with Canadian eyes.

Looking At Lean

In writing for learner engagement, we often talk about lean copy. I think it is likely that everyone appreciates lean copy, but that each person has their own understanding of what that means. On one hand, my German friends’ articles were the epitome of lean. They had stripped away all the fat (I mean all the fat). On the other hand, they were too lean for the audience I had in mind. Neither of us was wrong, we just had different audiences.

But Wait, There’s More

It’s more than just lean copy, though. With all the people involved in creating an excellent learner experience, who determines what "good" writing is?

In short, we can say this: the audience is right. After all, this is who writing serves, isn’t it? We must be willing to suspend our own culturally defined ideas of "good writing"—including what it means to be lean—and adapt to what works for our audience.

7 Questions And 3 Practical Considerations

I’m still learning what all this means, and I suspect you are too. However, I have developed a few questions that I think can help.

  1. How does the audience define "good writing"?
  2. What are the expectations of the writer? The reader?
  3. What does the audience find engaging? What draws them in?
  4. What local stories, proverbs, parables, or quotes are often used?
  5. How is thought sequenced?
  6. Where is their communication situated on the direct-indirect continuum? What about low-high context?
  7. Who can give me a local perspective?

Answering these questions is something that can be incorporated into your existing design processes and practices as a learning designer/developer. Here are 3 practical things to consider:

1. Learner Personas

In addition to gathering information about learner roles, responsibilities, goals, and digital literacy, add in some of the questions above. You could even provide a few short writing samples and see how they engage.

2. Validation (AKA Formative Evaluation)

A good design process always includes validation checks—does your learning design do what it is supposed to do? When you’re doing this, don’t just check for a balance between theory and practice or frequency of learner involvement. Ensure you include validation of your written materials, including different styles such as case studies, stories, explanations, or instructions.

3. Evaluation

Most trainings include evaluation at least at Kirkpatrick’s Level 1—reaction. While some slip into the habit of overly simplistic (and thus unhelpful) smile sheets, you can do more. Include questions that get learner feedback on the written content. Don’t just ask if they liked it or not, but ask what they liked or did not like, and why. If you can, dip into Level 2 evaluation (learning) and ask questions like "What helped your learning?" "What got in the way of your learning?"  "What parts of the content resonated with you?" and "Was anything in the written content confusing? If so, what and why?"

Asking these questions and engaging in these practical applications is not a silver bullet for good writing. However, it can go a long way to ensuring your writing serves your audience and not the other way around.

Over to you. What are your experiences with writing across cultures? What questions or ideas would you add to my list?