trimming the fat-01Growing up, the school system often forces you to read certain books that you may or may not want to read. In the United States, one of these books is often Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I don’t want to offend any of my fellow book nerds who have an attachment to this work, so take the following criticism with a grain of salt.

The Scarlet Letter, in my humble opinion, is a nigh-unreadable, self-indulgent mess. The book is not without merit, but any value it possesses is overpowered by a wall of purple prose which often has little bearing on the plot. This frustrating experience may sound familiar to anyone that has had to sit through badly designed eLearning.

Consider this passage from an early point in the book, before the actual story has even been set up.

“The pavement round about the above–described edifice—which we may as well name at once as the Custom–House of the port—has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business. In some months of the year, however, there often chances a forenoon when affairs move onward with a livelier tread. Such occasions might remind the elderly citizen of that period, before the last war with England, when Salem was a port by itself; not scorned, as she is now, by her own merchants and ship–owners, who permit her wharves to crumble to ruin while their ventures go to swell, needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood of commerce at New York or Boston.”

Snnnnnrrrrt–Whuh? Oh! Sorry! I drifted off there for a second.

For those of you who made it through that verbal purgatory, what did you gain from it? In one sentence, we now know that the custom house in Salem is a low-traffic area, but that business was booming back in the day.

Okay, we’ve painted a picture of the setting, but did it have to be so verbose in describing the minute details of the surrounding area? This is not to mention that, unless you’re literary scholar who has been trained to see the dubious threads that connect this introduction to the book’s actual plot, these details are completely unnecessary.

These frustrations are perfect examples of Richard Mayer’s Coherence Principle: “People learn better when extraneous words, pictures and sounds are excluded rather than included.”

Your eLearning should follow this principle whenever possible. It’s easy for the brain to digest nuggets of info given in regular doses than it is to drink from a fire hose. But how do you get info nuggets into bite-size portions? Simply put, you strip out any non-essential additives that bog the language down, streamlining the language.

For instance, if you were to design an eLearning course for, say, potato farmers, you could say, “The potato is a lumpy, oblong, subterranean root vegetable that grows from a plant in the dirt under your feet, which you might not expect, because when you hear the word ‘vegetable,’ you probably think of something that grows on a tree or a bush above ground.”

To get to the bare basics of this statement, we need only remove the redundant or unhelpful information. “Potatoes are root vegetables that grow in the soil”.

Tada! You now have coherent nugget of info that isn’t unnecessarily padded out just to fill the allotted time. Don’t say in fifty words what you could say well enough in five.

On that note, I have this message for human beings that are nearing the end of the task of reading this internet blog post about electronic eLearning that takes place on a computer: From the lowermost part of my cardiac muscle, which does a reasonable job at pumping blood to the rest of my body, I desire for you to encounter higher-than-average fortune when faced with random chances, meaning you’d be at the right-hand side of the bell curve that indicates you are among the few who experienced favorable outcomes when presented with the same set of circumstances. You have now reached the end of this collection of words, and may continue to peruse your other internet reading materials or cease your internet use at this time, if you so choose.

If you have expert techniques for whittling down your prose to make things more concise, share your techniques with us in the comments or share this on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter!

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