Formatting eLearning Documents: Back to the Basics

Elearning is a highly collaborative environment, with instructional designers (ID), subject matter experts (SME), instructors, and editors all working together to provide consistent content across multiple platforms. It’s one of the great strengths of eLearning.

It can also be a great weakness.

Elearning lives on the bridge between electronic and print media. We wander back and forth between the two formats while we stand with one foot on each side.

Sometimes, this need for balance causes us to fall off the bridge.

If we’re not careful, it leads to sloppy documents and poor presentation, which gives the impression of sloppy design and poor content. That’s why we need to go back to the basics.

What’s Foundational for Quality Documents?

We need to address two areas when we create documents for both electronic and print media:

  • Design: Unfortunately, design best practices for electronic and print media don’t always align. For example, print media generally uses serif fonts (e.g., Times New Roman), but electronic media uses sans-serif (e.g., Arial).
  • Formatting: eLearning collaborators constantly copy and recopy content, so a poorly formatted document can compromise the quality of the content as it moves from person to person. This is especially true in electronic collaboration, where poor formatting can, in extreme cases, even lead to document corruption.

My series on formatting eLearning documents should reduce the frequency of this document nightmare.

Designing for Multiple Document Formats

According to the consultation criteria by Waller (2011) in What Makes a Good Document, “many design and writing guidelines are there to ensure that working memory does not become overloaded. For example, a long sentence with complex clauses requires more cognitive capacity to process than a short simple sentence” (Waller, 2011, p. 3).

Fortunately, best practices for writing style can guide both electronic and print. See, for example, the guidelines from Regardless of format, documents need to be clear, concise, and easy-to-understand. We’ve even written a whole post about using simple language in your courses.

Waller also notes that readers look for cues in documents to help them read and find important content. They look at the big picture and principles of organization to decide how to read the text. The design elements that create cues for the reader are often different, even opposite, in electronic versus print media.

Ok, that was all a bit heady, so let’s look at some examples.

Jeffery’s (2016) open educational resource (OER), About Writing: A Guide, is available in electronic (eBook) and print form. The content is the same, but the presentation considers best practices for each form, so the design looks very different.

The eBook dives right into the content on the first web page. The dropdown menu works as the Table of Contents. As the reader scrolls and reads, the “Next Section” and “Previous Section” buttons stay visible.

Contrast this with the print version.

While this guide includes the same content, it has a full title page and Table of Contents.

Each section has a full title page followed by blank pages. This allows for the best practices in printing two-sided documents. The print version also includes large amounts of white space for design appeal because readers view one full page at a time.

Now, let’s look at an example of a document that is both electronic- and print-friendly, The Pocket Prof, an open resource from Kellogg Community College.

This document also has a title page but very little blank spaces and no blank pages. The Table of Contents is interactive, and there are hyperlinks throughout the document. For example, the words “see page 18” are in written form (for print) and include a hyperlink (electronic).

The tutorials in our Formatting eLearning Documents series will help you create electronic documents that are both electronic and print-friendly.

Formatting Documents for Electronic and Print

Proper formatting not only bridges the gap between electronic and print documents, it also keeps a consistent template while content moves through different layers of development.

I remember complaining one day to my husband (a graduate student and composition instructor at the time) that I was getting all these documents from professors who would press “enter” a dozen times to start a new page heading. This caused the whole document to shift when I added a new paragraph.

“Ugh! Why can’t they just use a page break!” To which my husband replied, “Oh, yes. Right. How do you do that, again?” Turns out, he had been pressing “enter” for all of his documents too!

For my husband, pressing “enter” a dozen times was not an issue. He intended to print the documents, and he was the only one working in documents that needed little correction from others.

However, for eLearning, where collaboration is key and it’s essential to provide multiple formats, using the correct tools to format your documents helps keep consistency in content and design. Proper formatting takes more time in the beginning, but it will save you time in the long-haul.

Now, let’s be honest, who has time to research this lovely “user-friendly” Microsoft Word navigation bar and filter out what actually applies to you and your eLearning documents?

No one, that’s who.

Enter our Formatting eLearning Documents series.

The tutorials in this series will help you decipher the MS Word navigation bar. We’ll use those best design practices we discussed earlier to explain how the button, ribbons, and tabs (oh my!) interact in relation to eLearning e-documents. These tutorials will help you cut back on some of the headache caused by formatting issues.

The future of this series:

So, in this series, we’re going back the basics of MS Word in tutorials that address:

  • Creating an interactive Table of Contents
  • Breaks (page vs. section), Headers, Title Pages, and Page Numbers
  • Creating Fillable Forms
  • And more exciting tips for formatting your eLearning documents!

Happy formatting!

How do you address the needs of electronic and print documents? Do you have a favorite best practice for formatting eLearning documents? Let us know in the comments.


Jeffrey, R. (2016). About writing: A guide (Rev. Ed.). Retrieved from

Kellogg Community College. (2017). The pocket prof: A composition handbook. Retrieved from (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from

Waller, R. (2011). What makes a good document: The criteria we use. Retrieved from


Author: Wendy Moore

Wendy was the former Curriculum Editor with eLearning and has learned more than anyone needs to know about APA Style and Microsoft Word. Wendy lives with her husband and their three children on a few acres of country land in Spring Arbor, Michigan.

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