Writing Guidelines

This brief overview of the writing process, which includes tips on planning what you write and a list of the general challenges that underlie all writing tasks, will help you craft documents that meet your particular communications needs. 

Initial planning

Before you begin to write, make sure you have a clear idea about:

  • your target audience. High school juniors, for instance, or corporate donors?
  • your publication's purpose. To recruit students? Recognize alumni?
  • your particular medium. A one-color brochure? A four-color ad? A website? 

Knowing the answers to these questions gives you a head start when you sit down to write. You'll make better judgments about appropriate content, language, amount of copy, organization, length of paragraphs, and tone—all the issues that ensure a piece of writing achieves its goals. 

You'll also have a better idea about many design issues. You'll probably want a recruitment brochure for high school juniors, for example, to include a lot of color and photos. The design might also highlight quotes from students and faculty members, perhaps alongside their photos. It’s a good idea to review similar publications coming out of other areas of the university, as well as materials from competitors.

Finally, of course, you'll also have to consider your budget: color, paper stock, number of pages, dimensions, quantity, and even delivery date can affect publication costs. (With online documents, such as Web documents, cost becomes less of an issue, but maintenance becomes an important one.) 

If you are unsure of how to get started developing an appropriate look and feel, Northeastern’s Marketing and Communications offers consultation appointments on Wednesday afternoons at 3 p.m. Email Vanessa Salas to see if a consultation makes sense for your needs and to schedule an appointment.

Addressing general editorial concerns

Once you have a clear idea of your goals, it's time to begin writing. Six areas must be addressed when you write any document: accuracy, organization, point of view, clarity, variety, and style. 

Accuracy 

All the information you present in your document must be factually correct; nothing undermines a publication's credibility more than erroneous information. To confirm the accuracy of the statements you make about Northeastern, consult the appropriate reference, person, or department. Strive for primary sources to verify information whenever possible.

Organization 

Unclear or illogical organization can discourage even the most motivated readers. Organize your text effectively and invitingly. 

Logically group all the sections within your document. Use transitions so that one section leads cleanly to the next. Use brief paragraphs, each built around a single central point as the building blocks within those sections. 

And remember the old adage: Tell readers what you're going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you've just told them. In other words, never forget the importance of strong, explicit introductions and conclusions. 

Point of view 

Point of view is the perspective and tone you create for your readers; always choose a point of view that matches your writing goals. 

Select the appropriate person for your text. First-person text is written from the perspective of or we. Second-person text is addressed to you. Third-person text describes him, her, it, or them

Scholarly text is often written completely in the third person. But the marketing and informational documents produced by a university often use a combination of second-person and first- or third-person text. That's because references to "you" help readers feel engaged or explicitly addressed by what they're reading. 

Note, however, that for consistency's sake, you should generally avoid mixing first- and third-person text. Although within some long documents, switching between the first and the third persons can be a useful variation, in shorter publications it's often better to pick one form and stick with it. 

Your tone should vary according to your writing goals, as well. Friendly, vivid, and somewhat informal language works well in most marketing and informational publications.

Clarity and composition

The words and sentence structures you choose must also mirror the needs of your audience. Information must be clear and easy for your readers to follow. In general, keep language and expression simple, short, and to the point. Fairly complex ideas, sentence structures, and words may be appropriate for sophisticated audiences, but unnecessarily dense constructions and vocabulary can sink any publication, regardless of reader sophistication. 

Useful tips:

  • Avoid strings of prepositional phrases within a sentence.
  • Use active voice, rather than passive.
  • Put statements in positive form (instead of He is not honest write He is dishonest).
  • Stick to one tense; if you write your story in the present tense, don’t change tenses unless discussing an action in the past or future.

Variety 

Varying your word choices, sentence lengths, and sentence structures helps keep your readers' interest strong. Don't overuse particular words. Alternate sentences that include subordinate clauses with those built around a single main clause. Vary the position of subordinate clauses within sentences. Mix active and passive constructions. Keep in mind: Active constructions lead to livelier prose. 

Once you start focusing on variety, you'll begin to develop your own natural rhythm as a writer. 

Style

Although style is only one component of effective writing, it's crucial. Since much of your credibility and authority as a writer hangs on an accurate and consistent style, it's important to make the right choices. This style guide is designed to help you negotiate around the most common pitfalls.

For answers to your style questions, refer to the list of style sources at the start of the Northeastern University Editorial Style Guide.

One final note: Different dictionaries espouse different spelling and hyphenation rules. To ensure consistency, it's best to consult the same dictionary each time you have a question. The standard used by Northeastern's Marketing and Communications is the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Wiley, Hoboken, N.J.