Creative Writing’s Role in E-Learning

Breaking the education/entertainment dichotomy.

ByJustin Gold, Instructional Designer, InfoPro Learning, Inc.

“Maintaining a culture that respects the contributions and dignity of all employees is vital to our organization and is everyone’s responsibility.”—Preventing Workplace Harassment for Employees

This sentence is direct, it’s professional—and it couldn’t possibly be less engaging (1). This all-too-common sentence highlights one of e-learning’s most destructive prevailing trends: the obsession with knowledge transfer to the detriment of engagement. Despite all the advancements in the interactive audio-visual realm, instructional designers still often view entertainment and education as mutually exclusive—and even opposing—ends of the instructional design spectrum.

This perceived balancing act between entertainment and education leaves many instructional designers erring on the side of caution. We often end up providing learners with a series of glorified PowerPoint slides—hardly the robust learning experience digital interactive media are capable of delivering.

Creative writing—writing typically employed in conceptual courses that is engaging enough to grab the learner’s attention and holistic enough to foster creative solutions—plays a critical role in breaking down perceived barriers and hitting the seemingly mythical engaging-yet-educational sweet spot.

Adapting Creative Writing to Creative Strategy

“Welcome to Minnesota c. 1900.” – Forests, Fields, and the Falls: Connecting Minnesota

By starting in media res (in the middle of a scene), this introductory sentence plunges the learner directly into a story that demonstrates the role of milling in the 1900s—and it does so in five words. The course goes on to demonstrate one of the main principles of conceptual instructional design: situational perspective. In other words, the course is effective because the writer understands, as Chairman of the Ford Foundation Seminar on Culture and Communication Marshall McLuhan puts it:

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

A common failing is to create characters that function as nothing more than talking heads (2). “Alex, the salesman,” of whom the learner ostensibly knows nothing beyond his name and his job title, is great for the writer and terrible for the learner. The writer is able to barrel through the scenario, using Alex as a robotic cipher to preach the lesson. The learner is bored and most likely not even at the computer anymore.

Write relatable avatars or characters. The avatars must have welcoming personalities and the characters must have explicit desires that will be tested in the face of common obstacles the learners themselves might face. This can seamlessly break the fourth wall of engagement between learner and lesson, providing effective situational perspective. When presented with a choice of multiple characters, more than 90 percent of people prefer interaction with the character to no character at all (3).

Having the narrator say, “John asked Marcia to quote the pricing for the staples” is not nearly as effective as John himself saying, “Marcia, can you quote me the price for 40 boxes of staples?” and then showing rather than telling the learner of that interaction. Writing out the dialogue rather than summarizing it, along with using contractions for colloquial realism and adapting the tone to suit the audience, ensures the learner gains situational perspective that would be otherwise impossible with force-fed fact repetition. The result is that the users can identify with the situations and can understand the consequences of the new system (4).

Adapting Instructional Design to Creative Writing

Perhaps that engaging story that demonstrates realistic scenarios for the use of a new pricing application turns out dampened by passive design and minimal interaction or feedback. Here, the design must adapt to maintain that same level of active engagement and holistic learning the writing achieved through relatable storytelling and situational perspective.

One of the most popular and effective ways to complement engaging creative writing with creative design is to employ interactivity. In Forests, Fields, and the Falls: Connecting Minnesota, interactivity is as simple as learners choosing the topic they want to learn about and scrolling through illustrated comic-book panes. In Design a Cell Phone, the learner can interact with the course by designing the most popular phone around a given budget based on market research and trends. Whether simple or complex, interactivity increases that all-important immersion factor and allows the creative writing a chance to reach its intended potential.

Using job aids (printable one pagers) for a procedural list rather than forcing them obtrusively into the writing is another way to ensure creative design complements creative writing. Regardless of how well the scenarios are written, “workers will not be able to possess all the detailed factual knowledge for all the known and unexpected situations they are responsible for handling” (5).

Lastly, ensure the design offers feedback to maintain learner engagement in a meaningful way.If the writing involves branching storytelling, design slides in such a way that the immediate consequences of the learner’s choices are shown. Design scenarios in such a way where assessments are inclusive and organically embedded within the storytelling itself rather than separate, engagement-breaking entities.

Entertaining Education: Writing Without Barriers

Just as strategy and writing must adapt to one another throughout the development process, so, too, must the writer mix engaging writing with hard-fact relevance, both on the fly and on a course-by-course basis. In the end, the packaged result is what matters to the learner, and objective attainment is what matters to the client. By mining the gray areas between education and entertainment, strategy and writing, instructional designers can adaptively and effectively propel creative writing in e-learning to heights that match the medium’s already impressive audio-visual capabilities.


  1. While a topic such as sexual harassment prevention in the workplace must be taken seriously, the writing itself must still be engaging and meaningful. 
  2. See pg. 235 of “Self-regulated Learning with MetaTutor: Advancing the Science of Learning with MetaCognitive Tools,” Roger Azevedo, Amy Johnson, Amber Chauncey, and Candice Burkett.
  3. See pg. 9 of “The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters” by Byron Reeves.
  4. See pg. 12 of “Less-is-More” by Bjarne Herskin.
  5. See pg. 2 of “On Conceptual Learning” by Elisabeth H. Wiig and Karl M. Wiig.

Justin Gold is an instructional designer at InfoPro Learning, Inc. (, where he designs e-learning courses for the maritime, health-care, and IT industries. Gold has applied his creative thinking and writing skills to a wide variety of industries, from book and magazine publishing to Website development and marketing. He studied fiction extensively at Forbes’ “Best of Web” Gotham Writers’ Workshop, going on to write published and award-winning short stories. His literary and creative experience offers him a unique perspective on instructional design at InfoPro, where he focuses on building engaging learning experiences based on forward-thinking methodologies.

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