Tips for running successful writing training sessions

What’s that saying about always remembering your favourite teacher? And the one one about that brilliant trainer you had that one time and, oh you know, they said that thing about the whatsit?


No one remembers a trainer in quite the same way as they do a teacher from school. But that’s not to say you can’t make a difference. In 2014 I trained hundreds of writers who were putting content on to the new GOV.UK website and learned plenty about training.

Teaching students

My background is in online journalism, I’ve worked for the BBC, Yahoo!, BT and AOL. When I set up my own company in 2008 I initially focused on writing copy for websites. My husband suggested I also try teaching journalism students about writing for websites. I asked my old university course at Sheffield if I could run a workshop and they said yes.

I had a bit of experience training new starters at the BBC and I had a good idea of what journalism graduates would need to know to get work in the online media industry. I was excited to think I’d be helping people get a job. That first session taught me a lot: students love to ask questions! And they will.

Tip: Know what you know so you can give reasons and explain in more depth if asked. Practice giving feedback. Get to the point and back up your comment with a reason.

Christine Cawthorne running a training session

Different learning styles

The second thing I found out when teaching students is that people learn differently: they might like to hear all the theory, see someone doing a demonstration, or they might want to have the minimum of instruction and just get stuck in. Or they might be a mixture of these. This means you have to plan your course to hit all those different styles and be creative in what you’re getting people to do.

Tip: Have a mix of exercises planned so there’s some discussion, some pair or group work and some work done alone. I can recommend Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, which has lots of structured exercises you can use and adapt. Particularly useful if you’re training after lunch and want something lively to avoid that dreaded slump.

The fear of training adults

I started to offer training in writing for the web and social to companies. Teaching adults brought a new level of fear – what if they know more than me? I found the way to alleviate this fear is to prepare loads of examples from their industry and get people to share their knowledge. They feel more involved and you’re learning too.

Tip: Ask people to talk about and share their experience. It’s interesting, involves them and you’ll learn something too.

When training people who don’t know each other, the introductions part is really important. You need to be clear about what you’re asking them to share and why – asking how much experience they have or what they’d like to find out in the session is a useful way to manage expectations – theirs and yours.

Tip: Ask questions directly to people so they have a chance to talk, not everyone is immediately comfortable speaking in a group.

Civil servants and a style guide

An opportunity to train civil servants how to write for the web and use a new style guide came up in 2014. This meant I was able to get my hands on some real problems.

I wanted to get people thinking about the way they write and present complex information online. I found the more we talked about the purpose of the copy at the start of the day, the better it was by the time we got to the practical exercises later on. This fascinated me – people instinctively knew what to do when they considered who would be reading their content.

We would look at eyetracking videos, research from the Nielsen Norman Group and this paper on how even lawyers prefer to read plain language. Every time I ran the course I would explain something a different way, or ask more questions.

I found that in general writers know how to write, they just need help with editing.

Tip: Help the writer find out about their audience and understand them better.  

Christine Cawthorne is a content strategist and director at Crocstar. Connect with @crocstar on Twitter.

Image credit: Chris Howard at Cactus Images

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