Writing and style

University of Exeter style guide

Use plain English

The Plain English Campaign describes plain English as ‘a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.’

Plain English conveys your meaning easily and quickly by using clear, punchy sentences addressed directly to the reader. It does not change your meaning or make complex thoughts simplistic – but it does make them more comprehensible and more persuasive.

Most experts would agree that clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. This does not mean making every sentence the same length, but you should vary your style by mixing short sentences with longer ones, following the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point.

Use ‘you’ and ‘we’

Try to call the reader ‘you’, and call the University/School/Department ‘we’. Referring to the reader impersonally (‘applicants’, ‘students’) can be off-putting for them.

Use active verbs and positive language

Use active verbs as much as possible – ‘we will do’ rather than ‘it will be done’. Passive language can sound impersonal and bureaucratic whereas active verbs tend to engage the reader more. Always try to emphasise the positive side of things - ‘If you don’t send your application form, we won’t make you an offer.’ (Negative) ‘Please send your application form so we can make you an offer as soon as possible.’ (Positive)

Use lists where appropriate

Lists are excellent for splitting information up and they make information easier to absorb. With a list that is part of a continuous sentence, put semicolons (;) after each point and start each with a lower-case letter (unless list items are module titles for example).

General points

  • Stop and think before you start writing. Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
  • Prefer short words. Long words will not impress your audience or help your writing style.
  • Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and explain any technical terms you have to use.
  • Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Try to stick to one main idea in a sentence.
  • Use active verbs as much as possible. Say 'we will do it' rather than 'it will be done by us'.
  • Be concise.
  • Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
  • Always check that your writing is clear, helpful, human and polite.

Adapted from the website of the Plain English Campaign.

Consistency

For specific guidance on spelling, preferred vocabulary, punctuation and organisation of copy for both print and web, use the Style guidelines A-Z to help keep a consistent style across publications and websites.