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Tracey Anderson

Editing Technical Instructional Material: Become the Student

Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo

Creating effective instructional material for technical students can be tricky. Making it student friendly requires a balance between adequately covering the information, which is often highly technical, and presenting it in a way that a wide range of students can understand. These are some ways editors can help subject matter experts (SMEs) find this balance.

Watch out for information gaps

It’s hard to un-know what you know. Because of their in-depth knowledge, SMEs can create information gaps in the materials by unconsciously assuming students have knowledge that they don’t yet have. This is where editors come in: they can identify information gaps and provide suggestions about how to fill them so that students get all the necessary information.

Clarify the jargon

Although “jargon” refers to the technical vocabulary specific to a field of study, negative connotations are often attached to this word. Jargon is perceived negatively because it’s often used excessively or in ways that cause confusion. As a result, some writers and editors advocate eliminating jargon; the truth is, though, that to teach students adequately about their field, SMEs must teach the jargon. Editors, then, must help SMEs present terminology so that it brings clarity rather than confusion.

One strategy is to provide definitions of terms when they first appear in the text and again if much new material appears before the term is mentioned again. It’s better to repeat a definition even if not every student will need it than to create confusion for some students by leaving the definition out. Another strategy is to structure the text so that no individual sentence or paragraph is so overloaded with jargon that it’s incomprehensible to anyone except a highly trained expert.

Keep an eye on visual input

Perhaps one of the best ways to simplify and clarify learning input is to incorporate strategies beyond text; some ideas are best explained or enhanced visually. Tables, graphs, photos and illustrations can often make complex concepts easier to understand than a long paragraph. Even bulleted lists can make information easier to follow and more memorable by breaking it into smaller chunks.

Editors must ensure that visual input is clear and fully relevant to the text, without unnecessary information, but expertise in photography or illustration software isn’t required. Specific, to-the-point comments on visual elements already included or suggestions about elements that could be added, such as changing a paragraph into a table for easy reading and later reference, are sufficient.

Become the student

For me, the key to editing technical instructional material is to read it from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the concepts and ask myself, “Would students be able to understand this?” By putting yourself in the place of the student, you position yourself to successfully edit the learning material so that it can help lead students to success.

These suggestions are a few of the ways that I approach the process of editing instructional material. What other strategies do you find useful?


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5 Comments on “Editing Technical Instructional Material: Become the Student”

  • Marnie Schaetti


    This is my favourite kind of editing, and I regularly use every one of your techniques. The only one I’d add is based on my experience of working with multiple authors writing one manual. In those situations, they each tend to write separate chapters, or units, or sections. If I have the good fortune of being brought in on the project early enough, I discuss possible structures with the authors even before they start writing. Together we create a template of sorts to ensure that what they write is relatively parallel from one chapter or unit to the next. I learned to my dismay in one very early project that it is insufficient simply to have a template listing headings such as “Introduction” and “Objectives.” What is critical to make such a template useful, which I learned the very hard way, is that we all need to be on the same page about the content of each portion of the template needs to include. I had no idea how differently people could interpret “Introduction” until I began editing the manual. This was a great post. Thank you.

  • Tracey Anderson


    Hello Marnie. Thank you for your comment. Editing is always a little harder when multiple writers are involved. I chuckled a little when you said you had no idea how many different ways people could interpret what “introduction” means. It’s so true. In my work, I didn’t often have multiple experts involved in one manual, but typically multiple authors writing separate manuals within one project, which creates similar issues. Even with a fairly explicit internal style guide, much is open to interpretation. That’s the challenge, but also the satisfaction when you help SMEs pull it all together.

  • Marnie Schaetti


    You’re right: it is definitely part of the satisfaction.

  • Naomi Pauls


    Thanks for this informative article, Tracey. I especially appreciated your comments about jargon. Speaking of which — and, I admit, playing devil’s advocate — the terms “learning input” and “visual input” were new to me, although I can extrapolate their meaning from the context. Are these terms used commonly in instructional design?

    • Tracey Anderson


      Hi Naomi. Thanks for your comments. Yes, “learning input” and “visual input” are terms used in instructional design. I use them so readily that they no longer feel like jargon to me, but having someone else note that they are is a good reminder. Thanks for pointing it out. “Input” can also be added to more words to create other terms such as “digital input.”

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