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Why your online course needs a style guide and how to write one now

When we started LinguaLift, our language learning platform, we already had an established Japanese course with thousands of learners. We wrote the textbook ourselves, over the course of two years, improving it lesson by lesson based on student feedback.

The problem?

We now had to achieve the same result in two months, with a new team of authors, teaching languages none of us understood. It was clear the only way forward was to create clear guidelines that condense our past learnings and teaching philosophy.

Our goal:

Give new hires just enough structure to write a course tailored to each particular language, but also one our learners would clearly recognize as a LinguaLift product.

In today’s post, I’ll show you how to create an edtech Manual of Style that will:

  • Ensure a consistent voice throughout your course
  • Unite your educators behind common values
  • Lead to effective copy for your demographic
  • Save you money on content editors

How to write an educational style guide

Understand your customer

To make sure your efforts aren’t wasted, it’s important to first fully understand your students.

Below are just some of the questions you should answer:

  • What problem do they have that you can solve?
  • What are tangentially related topics they are interested in?
  • How old and educated are they?
  • What characteristics are shared in their lifestyle?

I recommend you ask as many questions as possible and make sure everyone is involved. Give each of your team members a pen and blank flashcards, set a timer to 3 minutes, and ask them to write as many ideas as possible. The crazier, the better!

Then, spend the remainder of the meeting to brainstorm answers to each question and build your customer persona.

Decide on the values you want to project

When you think about style guides, what springs to your mind might be suggested spelling and punctuation.

In fact, the most important section is the introduction, which defines the broader philosophy behind how you write.

Here’s the beginning of The Economist Style Guide:

The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.

I recommend you to read the entire introduction, with readers’ letters and quotes of important writers all making the message more powerful. But, even these first three sentences include all a new writer would need, and foretell every rule you will encounter in the full guide.

Here is another example, from our very own Manual of Style, used by authors at LinguaLift:

How we teach
Opinionated methodology
A good course takes sides instead of trying to appease all teaching styles.
Lead learners with confidence, don’t let them wonder which approach is best.

Self-study with a helping hand
Self-study is the best way to learn, but lack of motivation and guidance lead to failure.
Support and empower self-learners from behind, giving insights as to the path ahead.

Immediately practical, but long-term focus
You will never forget what you can use right away. Be personal and useful.
Don’t introduce shortcuts that will impede long-term understanding.

Progress over illusion of progress
Encourage enduring habits over binge-learning.
Force review before learning.

We followed a different format from The Economist, but the concept remains the same. We want everyone on the team to live and breathe our methodology, which is perfectly adapted to the kind of customer we are trying to attract.

Clarify what you consider good prose

Next, it’s time to connect the values you defined earlier to the writing style you want your authors to adopt.

Again, from The Economist Style Guide’s introduction:

Keep in mind George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946):

  1. Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
  4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).

Note how each point reinforces the “first requirement of The Economist,” clarity, but this time with more specific suggestions for writers.

You’ll also notice The Economist makes frequent references to words of famous authors. The British newspaper has since become an authority in their own right, but the quotes help further reinforce the validity of the style guide in the eyes of its users.

Again, an example from our own Manual of Style:

How we write
The guiding principles behind a good course is to be concise, consistent and clear. Write the way you would explain something to a good friend. The best lessons read like they are an email response to a question that you’ve sent, that your favourite teacher has personally replied to.

“If we want users to like our software we should design it to behave like a likeable person: respectful, generous and helpful.”
— Alan Cooper

Be concise
To paraphrase the great Edward Tufte, every drop of ink must be there for a reason. Write crisp sentences that convey information in the minimum amount of words, without sacrificing clarity.

“I see but one rule: to be clear.”
— Stendhal

Be consistent
Pick one way to organize explanations, present asides, and emphasize what’s important. Then stick to it throughout the course.

“Consistency is one of the most powerful usability principles: when things always behave the same, users don’t have to worry about what will happen. Instead, they know what will happen based on earlier experience.”
— Jakob Nielsen

Use simple language
Don’t be casual, but use the language of educated, everyday speech. Avoid linguistic jargon, oratorical flourishes, and chatty interjections.

“No matter how beautiful, no matter how cool your interface, it would be better if there were less of it.”
— Alan Cooper

Once you’ve gotten your wider objectives across, it’s time to cover spelling, punctuation and other technical questions which you write might have.

If left unanswered, minor technicalities can end up wasting your and your editor’s time on repetitive back and forth, or lead to inconsistencies jarring to your readers.

Authoring a complete manual of style is a full time job for a team of professional writers. So, I recommend you only cover the most important points for your publication, then pick an established style guide and ask your writers to refer to it if a specific point hasn’t been covered.

Here are some popular choices both for British and American English:

Leave with a step-by-step checklist for your writers

Professional writers have studied best practices for many years, read and reread different style guides, and consumed an immense amount of prose by other talented authors.

As a result, they can almost unconsciously apply the style required of them.

Of course, you cannot expect the same from team members without a background in copywriting or journalism. Which is why we close our Manual of Style with a checklist authors can go over to improve on their first draft.

The list is adapted from Shani Raja of the The Wall Street Journal and his excellent course Writing with Flair: How to Become an Exceptional Writer on Udemy.

After you finish writing a lesson, go through the checklist below point by point, improving your work:

  • Do I use simple, familiar words throughout?
  • Have I eliminated all jargon and clichés, hedging?
  • Have I avoided repeating words, points?
  • Have I gone into too much detail anywhere?
  • Have I avoided ambiguity?
  • Do I avoid making simple points sound complicated?
  • Are all my distinctions/comparisons crisp?
  • Can I cut out any more words?
  • Are any sentences too long, or contain too many sub-clauses?
  • Do I use the active voice?
  • Do I avoid reversing into sentences?
  • Are my tenses consistent?
  • Do I avoid word echoes?
  • Does my writing reflect clear, logical thinking?
  • Will a reader be forced to reread anything?
  • Have I removed all the unnecessary clutter?
  • Have I got to the point immediately?
  • Do I have a logical narrative structure?
  • Do I steer the reader through my narrative?
  • Are all ideas within a sentence neatly ordered?
  • Are my paragraphs suitably arranged?

A style guide is an open-ended exercise

Like company culture, or customer service saved replies, your style guide will never be finished.

As you evolve your understanding of your customers, get feedback from your students, and benefit from the experience of professional writers joining your team, you will refine this document and further clarify your company’s voice.

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Philip Seifi

Philip Seifi

Founder | Cross-pollinating between industries and cultures. | Nomad entrepreneur 🌎 designer 🌸 hacker 💻 |