3 Ways We Got Writing Training Right

And I’m back again from an exhilarating and exhausting week conducting writing training for subject matter experts at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, WV. I thought it would be helpful to share with you a few of the things that went so well during the week and that have made our course, Critical Writing / Critical Thinking, one of the most sought after in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is not by accident that students of our course repeatedly seek out instructors to say, this is THE best course I have ever taken; that is a product of design.woman making presentation

Mind you, this is a course in writing being taken by biologists. These are people who have spent their lives devoted to the conservation of a species. Many of them are surprised to discover how much writing is required from a subject matter expert. It’s not what they were trained for.

Yet throughout the week, even those who had arrived reluctant or even resentful were engaged, enthused, and energized by the training. All participants left with a sense of hope that the writing process was something over which they had some measure of control.

How did we accomplish that? And how can your organization do the same? Here are a few of the many ingredients of writing training gone right:

First, on day one as we kicked off the class, a high level supervisor – from his seat, not from the front of the classroom – said, we’re here to make organizational change. We want you to challenge the status quo. We don’t want the same old bureaucratic process that has been in effect for as long as any of us can remember.

That statement, both its content and its delivery, had a profound effect on the conduct of course participants, such that by week’s end, one participant said, I’m going back to my office and rewriting the boilerplate that we use for our major reports.

A trainer alone cannot effect that sort of institutional change, especially a trainer that has been contracted or a trainer based in human resources and therefore perceived by subject matter experts to be working outside the realm of daily operations. Only someone in the trenches and in the chain of command has the type of authority to challenge course participants to think differently about the Writer’s Triangle.

Second, supervisors took the class alongside their team members. Team members who, on the job, are being edited and reviewed, finally saw their supervisor as a writer, just like them. This is a role that their supervisor played in the past, but to which team members were not witness. That simultaneously increases the team members’ level of respect for their supervisor and buoys their own confidence as writers.

Meanwhile, the supervisor, by watching the course instructors, is given a set of tools, whereby to communicate with her team when she returns to the field. It recalibrates, if you will, the relationship between writer and reviewer.

From those participants we heard things like, I’m going to make sure my team has the tools they need to conduct their research and writing, like appropriate reference works and additional time. From the team members, we heard things like, I’m grateful that so-and-so is here, because I know I’m not going to lose the ground I’ve gained.

All of this is possible only because, number three, the class is designed and taught by the very same subject matter experts who are now course participants. The organization itself advocated for the training, and leaders within the organization said, this is the kind of writing we do, and this is the kind of training we need.

My role as a writing training expert was to say, here are some effective ways of teaching writing, here are some course design strategies, and here are some ways that you can work effectively with the writers in your organization. But the course gains its credibility from a design that is inherently proprietary. Having modules tailored to the kinds of writing they do – for example, argument by cause, argument by authority, or a review process called surnaming, as opposed to simply, writing for biologists – makes the week all the more valuable.

And they teach it. We have one contractor – me. And I’m there because I’m a language specialist. I offer the class some grammar refreshers, some tips on sentence and paragraph structure, and some ways to make sentences tighter and more clear.

But the bulk of the class is taught by either those instructors who designed the course initially or by previous students who have been motivated to spread the word that clear written communication is possible, even for biologists. And by the end of the week, at least one or two students are stepping forward to say, I’d like to continue with this class by becoming a reviewer. That doesn’t happen with most outside contractors.

In all of these ways, we got our writing training right. And for that reason, it’s been one of the most popular classes at the NCTC for the past 5 years.

Does this sound like the kind of training your organization could use? If so, please contact me. I would love to help you design something similar. Because communication is key!


  1. Stanley Dambroski says

    Michelle, this sounds like a very effective course. I’m not surprised that it gets rave reviews.

    I’d be interested to hear more detail about point 3; an article detailing the process would be wonderful.

  2. Steve Llanso says

    Michelle,are you familiar with the Plain-Language initiative in the Federal Government? A friend just pointed me to it yesterday and I found a manual that on first scan seems to have a lot of good ideas. This is the link — http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/index.cfm — to that manual.

    • Steve – unfortunately, yes. Thank you for the reference. I do have it. It IS a good resource, and you’re right – the ideas contained therein are worth a look.

      I disagree on principle with a few points within the plain language movement generally. For example, the movement emphasizes the use of simple sentences. I believe that complex sentences improve logical connections and decrease reader fatigue. I intend to conduct empirical research to prove the latter, and am in talks with the psychology department at my local university to coordinate that effort.

  3. I’m a plain english fan, Oxford Guide to Plain English is my bible.
    I write assessments and manuals for those whose skills lay elsewhere than reading and writing and there is so much to do, but there is a point where it can become boring and even grating.
    Interested to see what you find.

    • Thanks Kevin. I visited a few plain language websites this morning, and I was disturbed at how they bordered on pandering to the illiterate. There is a need for that, especially in the medical industry. But there also needs to be a way to express complex scientific and academic concepts in ways that are clear to a layperson.

  4. Michelle,
    It sounds like it was wonderfully rewarding week after all your effort – and I know how much effort you put into your students. I’m glad you’re taking a stand against reducing written language to the lowest common denominator.
    I’m seeing this dumbed-down style in e-books.There is little flow, nuance or elegance.
    Clear communication does not have to be simple and dry. The pendulum doesn’t have to swing to an extreme in an effort to change what I call “government-style” text into something digestible for the average reader.



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