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Voice & Tone

We aim to sound like people. Sounds simple, right? In the world of academia, though, this can be a tough task for all the typical reasons. Our processes, organization and subject matter can be hard to understand. It’s easy enough to get lost in the complexity and churn out some pretty mechanical-sounding copy. That makes for some very bad websites.

Above all, we want our copy to be clear and concise. We also want to be friendly, where appropriate, but keep in mind that our audience is very diverse. It includes students, parents, faculty, donors, researchers, politicians and more. When developing content, balance formality and colloquialism and keep your potential audiences in mind. Homecoming copy requires a different approach than, say, an alumni and giving page. An academic program page might speak to students — and their parents.

Here are a few tips that can help keep our content user-friendly:

  • Our users are people: Real people with imaginations, anxieties and worries. They might be trying to find information about a pending deadline or they might have an interest in the research we do. Make it easy to find the information they need. Make it easy to get interested in the things we do. Empathize with our users and we’ll get more support and fewer angry phone calls.
  • Write like you speak: If you’re ever struggling to find the words, pretend you’re explaining something to a guest you just met at a dinner party. If your imaginary guest looks puzzled, the reader will be, too. Simplify your explanation. Then, write that down. Don’t be afraid to talk it out. Your cubicle mates might scratch their heads, but readers will thank you.
  • Contractions are fine: They save space and give our writing a friendlier tone.
  • Use active voice: In almost all cases, active voice makes for better sentences. Use passive voice only when you have a compelling reason to use passive voice.
  • ‘You’ is a powerful word: Don’t be afraid to speak directly to your readers. It engages them and avoids awkward constructions (using the stilted-sounding “one” as a pronoun, for example). This is especially useful on pages where we’re speaking to a single audience, such as a scholarship or internship page.
  • Alphabet soup is bad: Acronyms and abbreviations obscure meaning and confuse readers. If an acronym isn’t commonly known, spell it out on first reference and try to avoid excessive usage. On second reference, pronouns can help (“the agency,” “the organization” and so on). See Style section for more details on abbreviations and acronyms. The world of academia is also prone to some particularly terrible forced acronyms. Should you come across these, feel free to provide a brief description in plain English.
  • Jargon is also bad: It relies on context our users may not yet have acquired. Our user research, for example, shows that high school students have a very different understanding of what “Greek” means. Whenever possible, avoid “higher-ed” speak.
  • Org charts are our business: Our readers shouldn’t be expected to understand our labyrinthine business structure. That’s our job. As much as possible, keep our inner workings behind the curtain. Help the user find what they need and don’t weigh them down with hierarchal explanations they don’t care about.
  • Beware the thesaurus: Big words aren’t better, especially if they aren’t words you’d feel comfortable using with your friends. Use the words you know. It beats misusing a word you just looked up.