A hand holding a pen takes notes next to a laptop computer.

Writing for Online

Many instructors teaching online for the first time haven’t written formal course content before. In a face-to-face course, lecture notes are usually only seen by the instructor. Online, you’re putting it all out there. Here are strategies for writing and formatting content for your online course.

Writing Content

In a classroom environment, you are able to use your tone of voice, body language, and personality to give life to your lectures. Online, you must rely more heavily on written text. Videos are a great option, but a student is not likely to have the time or inclination to sit down and watch an hour-long recorded lecture.

Writing text is necessary in an online course because it mirrors the experience you contribute to a face-to-face course. In the classroom, you don’t just turn on a slideshow, hand out the readings, and sit silently while your students work through the material on their own. Your personal insights, experiences, and discussion guidance help build the learning environment. In an online course, writing gives you the opportunity to do the same.

Formal academic writing is usually not the best choice for an online course.The formal academic style tends to be abstract, uses complex vocabulary, avoids active verbs, and is stuffed with prepositional phrases, usually ending in nouns with Greek or Latin suffixes (“-ation,” “-ition,” “-ology,” etc). It can intimidate students not accustomed to the language.

So, how can you make your writing more engaging?

Rely on verbs rather than nouns.

Proteins are essential in maintaining the healthy functions of muscles and bones in the body.

vs.

Proteins maintain healthy muscle and bone function.

Choose strong, active verbs—even if it means switching around the subject/object.

The novel was received tepidly by the academic community.

vs.

The academic community received the novel tepidly.

Avoid ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ constructions.

There are many factors that can influence…

vs.

Many factors can influence.

Reduce propositional phrases. Turn a noun into a possessive, adjective, or a noun/verb construction.

The formation of the skeleton is in its early stages.

vs.

The skeleton’s formation in its early stages…

Eliminate unnecessary words. Change future tense to present tense. Reduce ‘which’ or ‘that’ phrases.

The defects that can be attributed to…

vs.

The defects attributed to…

Be conversational, as if you are speaking directly to the class.

Address the student as “you,” to make the text personal and relevant. (Do you see how we did that here?)

When possible, change jargon to more standard vocabulary.

Praxis—practice or process.

vs.

Aegis—protection or support.

Formatting Tips

Following these best practice tips can help make the writing process faster and easier. This article has some great ideas for typography, page layout, color, and more.

  • Don’t do this!
  • Do this.

Proper formatting is important to ensure that your course content is accessible and readable by students. Keep it simple. Avoid unusual text alignment, excessive use of bold or italic words, elaborate fonts, and distracting colors. Use descriptive headings in logical order following reading hierarchy. For example, in a platform like Microsoft Office or the Canvas LMS, you should use a title or heading 1 to begin your written content. Use subsequent heading styles such as heading 2, heading 3, etc. for sub-topics of your content. This intuitive styling will make your content more user-friendly for all students.

Your goal is to help your students learn the course material, not to “wow” them with a flashy webpage.

The same goes for PowerPoints you may integrate into your course. You can even narrate PowerPoints as a lecture resource for students. Writing for slides can be challenging, especially when you have a lot of information you want to cover. Try to keep both verbal and written information succinct. And, remember that audio files must have accompanying transcripts or closed captions to be ADA compliant.

As you write your course material, always keep sources in mind and cite them appropriately. A tool like the website Cite This For Me or Zotero can make this process simple. Not only does this ensure that you’re respecting copyright (an area we’ll explore more later), it also gives students a reference to follow if they’d like additional information on a topic.

Example

Academic Speak:

While factually accurate, this paragraph uses academic-speak and long sentences to convey several ideas.

The Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) is an example of a cancer-causing virus with RNA as its genome. This is called a retrovirus. After entering a host cell, retroviruses convert their RNA genome to a double-stranded molecule of DNA, which then integrates itself into the genome of the infected host cell.

Conversational:

This example is more casual, as if the instructor is speaking directly to the student. It also breaks down the process by introducing it in steps (first, then, finally).

The Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) is an example of a retrovirus, a cancer-causing virus with RNA as its genome. Not ‘retro’ because it is old-fashioned, but rather ‘retro’ because it does something backwards with respect to the central dogma of molecular biology.

First, a retrovirus enters a host cell. Then, it converts its RNA genome to a double-stranded molecule of DNA. Finally, the DNA integrates itself into the genome of the infected host cell.

Test Yourself

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