Writing needs to be clear, concise and credible, whether you’re producing text for a printed brochure, a departmental website or a news article.
Here are some writing tips for different media and audiences.
Determine your audience and the purpose of your writing. These are the primary guides. They help you determine the tone, length of article, reading level and article structure.
Most of our writing at the university is eventually used on the web, even the stories that start out in a print publication. To help online readers, concentrate on shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and shorter articles for most written material.
Try to avoid professional or academic jargon. Avoid marketing language. Instead, use the common words that we all understand.
As communicators for the university, we engage a wide variety of audiences. Members of each audience have different expectations and desires for the material they read.
Writing for a general audience can prove difficult. Your writing has to appeal across ages, cultures, genders and reading level. We can’t assume our general readers will know our particular topic, so we avoid jargon. We know that reading levels stretch from grade school kids to learned professors, so our writing needs to use common language but without becoming simplistic. Erring on the side of a third-person tone is safer, although we want our writing to remain welcoming and open to all readers.
We have readers who are from other nations and cultures, so try to avoid idioms that only an American might dig … er, um … understand.
Students and Prospective Students
When writing for students, your tone can be less formal than for older adults, although a lot of our students are non-traditional, so don’t go overboard. Adopting a second-person style of writing is the easiest way to engage a reader and create an informal level of communication. Using “you” to refer to the reader draws the reader into your writing more so than a strictly third-person style.
We want to be inclusive and welcoming to students, so don’t write down to them or patronize them as readers. Every single one of them has a story to tell and we should listen.
Faculty and Staff
When writing for faculty and staff, you should adopt a more direct and succinct tone. If you’re writing for a narrow audience that will understand the terminology of a faculty member’s particular field of study, feel free to use it appropriately. If you’re writing to a wider faculty audience, remember to explain those terms that might have a specific meaning in a specific field.
Alumni are family, so writing in a familiar tone helps. They are in the know about our campus traditions and the ways we talk about the university. Using “U of A” rather than the full name of the institution is no problem. Most of our alumni still have strong emotional bonds to the campus, so your writing should usually reflect some level of reverence for the campus and its traditions.
If you are writing for a narrow audience and want advice or suggestions, contact Charlie Alison at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We use different types of writing to convey different types of messages. There are several types of writing:
- FAQ page
Each of these has a traditional form for writing.
The scheduling of an event, a deadline for an application, a new employee — any of these might be best communicated as an announcement.
Announcements are intended to let readers know something new, so put that new thing at the beginning of the article. Journalists always try early to answer the questions of who, what, when, where, why and how in basic articles like announcements.
Ironically, you don’t have to say “The Department of Widgets announces it is now accepting submissions” in an announcement. It’s more direct to say: “The Department of Widgets is now accepting submissions.”
An article is a step up from an announcement, usually written when more explanation is needed for context. Instead of a simple announcement of a faculty award, for instance, an article might explain why a faculty member deserved the award.
These might be a news article conveying what has happened or will happen or an explanatory article on a web page that tells a student the proper way to do something.
When writing articles, follow a style called the “inverted pyramid.” In this style, the most important elements go at the beginning of the story. An explanation or consequences might come next. The least important material, perhaps history or background, is added at the end of the article.
This helps a reader get information quickly but allows the reader to gain more insight if it’s an issue important to them.
Stories — in this case non-fiction stories — are a further refinement of the article. No longer are you simply giving information. Now, you’re telling a tale in a narrative form.
Use any of the traditional elements of story-telling:
- Narrative arc
In the example under “articles” about a faculty member receiving an award, a “story” might use “building a better world” as its central theme. The character of the faculty member is central as she overcomes difficulties in the research and finds a new solution to an age-old problem that will help her fellow human beings. Instead of the award being at the beginning of the “article,” it might become the conclusion of a “story.”
Although stories are used more readily in print materials that are read in a more relaxed timeframe, longer form stories work well online as well when a reader knows that they are coming to a more developed story.
Pages with “frequently asked questions” offer a chance for a reader to find specific answers on their own. The questions for a FAQ list should be based on the real, recurring questions you receive about a program or event. If it’s a new program or event, however, you will need to think ahead about questions that are likely to be asked by your intended readers and users.
Make sure the terminology you use in your FAQ matches the terminology that the program or event uses. Organize the structure of your FAQ, perhaps by grouping the five or six most common topics first and then less frequently asked questions to follow, grouped by area if there are enough questions. Keep the questions as generic as possible and the answers as short as possible while still fully answering the question. Don’t forget to update these lists as the program or event grows or evolves.
Web vs. Print
While our writing should always be clear and concise, regardless of the medium for which it is intended, there are differences between writing for the web and for print. One of the biggest is the attitude of a reader. Jakob Nielsen explains this difference as the difference between leaning in and leaning back:
- A reader of the web is on a hunt, actively pursuing some end and creating their own experience as they move from one page to another.
- A reader of print is more often taking a passive role, following a story line or experience constructed by the writer.
Keep those thoughts in mind as you write for either platform.
Online readers usually come to web pages looking for an answer. The quicker they see that your page has an answer to their question (or doesn’t), the quicker they will be able to decide whether to continue reading.
To help readers, you should keep your writing even tighter for the web than for other forms of communication. Use shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences and common words whenever possible.
- Most web readers scan web pages. Straightforward subheads and bulleted lists help them spot what they want quickly.
- Make your content actionable.
- The average reader has a reading level well below college reading acumen.
- Users only read longer passages when they are highly motivated to get extended information and when they are sure they have found what they need.
- Avoid complex sentences. Break them into two shorter sentences whenever possible.
People expect to read “stories” in magazines. They might have a few articles and announcements as well, but the meat of a magazine should be well-told tales. These take more time and research to write but usually have a longer shelf life and offer deeper engagement for readers.
Stories usually have a central theme and writing one often means editing oneself, removing elements that don’t contribute to the theme.
- Printed articles follow a linear track. Readers come along on the narrative journey to see what will happen next. Give them that path.
- Use complete sentences for that path except when you need dramatic focus.
- Anecdotes and examples provide context within a story and create interest.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do know your audience.
- Do use short sentences.
- Don’t use meaningless words or jargon.
- Don’t write technically.
- Do use small blocks of text instead of lengthy paragraphs.
- Do use implicit text for your links.
- Phrases like “click here” or “links” distract from the content. Write your links so that they are a natural part of the sentence.
- For example, instead of “Biology students love their major. Click here to read more about Biology,” use “Biology students love their major.”
- Do update your pages regularly.
- Do show date of update so visitors feel confident the information is current.
- Do ask for feedback and provide an email address to submit it.
- Don’t show any page “under construction.” If it’s not finished, don’t publish it.
- Don’t change links. People will link to your site/content, so don’t break the links.
- Don’t create dead ends. A dead end page is linked to by other pages but has no links. Visitors get trapped on a dead end page and have to use the back button.
- Do regularly check all of the links on your site to avoid 404 errors.
- Do always supply textual links.
Using only clickable images or image maps makes your site unusable for anybody that disables images. Images should always have ALT text as well.