Writing well

Find out how to write well and communicate effectively as a member of Sussex staff.

Before you start to write

When writing for the University, think:

  • Who is this content for?
  • Why do they need it?
  • Have I told the audience what they need to know, and only what they need to know?
  • Does it meet our brand guidelines on tone of voice?
  • What is the lifecycle of the content?
  • Which format best meets the needs of your audience?

Main headings

Use clear and simple language and the words our audiences use. This is particularly important on the web because most users come to our pages through search engines.

On web pages, the title must clearly say what the page is about.

Rather than:

Application procedure for applying for University-managed housing

Instead:

How to apply for accommodation

In print, headings can be more creative and less information-led, depending on the tone of the publication.

Write headings in sentence case, rather than capping every word.

Standfirsts

Use a standfirst to tell the user what they need to know straight away. On the web, this helps the reader know they’re on the right page.

In print, a factual standfirst is also useful but there is room for a variety of approaches.

Sub headings

Break up your copy with descriptive headings. This helps readers scan a page and understand the main points you’re making.

Keep headers short and relate them to the content underneath.

Avoid:

  • jargon or complex terminology
  • heading styles or bold to highlight important information – just put important details at the front of a sentence instead
  • complicated word-play or puns, which might confuse international audiences
  • acronyms in headings – using the full title is clearer.

Important: Never skip heading levels – see best practice on structuring headings.

Writing body copy

Write using plain English and short words. Avoid Sussex jargon.

Do: We have many international students at the University.

Don’t: The University has an illustrious history of internationalism.

Important: It doesn’t matter if the person reading your content is a specialist, as even highly intelligent people prefer to read plain English, and they may not have any knowledge of Sussex.

Write using the active voice, not the passive.

Do: We have world-leading researchers.

Don’t: Researchers from several disciplines have been brought together to teach our undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes.

Start with a verb to keep a call to action simple and clear.

Do: Find a course.

Don’t: Course finder.

Keep paragraphs short and straightforward. Stick to one idea per paragraph.

Do: As a student in the Department of Education, you’ll be taught by lecturers involved in real-world research projects.

Don’t: You will find us to be a warm, caring community of scholars who pride ourselves on the quality of the courses we offer and of the research we undertake, and also on our commitment to – and depth of involvement with – our students, policy-makers and professionals.

Important: Where possible, keep sentences to about 25 words. Use different sentence lengths to hold the reader’s interest. Changing the pace and rhythm will make your copy more readable.

Be direct about what you want the audience to do – and tell them to do it.

Do: Contact us to book a place on a campus tour.

Don’t: In addition to our annual open days, we also offer year-round guided campus tours.

You don’t need to include pleasantries in web and print content as you would in an email or letter. It’s usually better to be brief.

Rather than:

Please note that there are no refunds for tickets after 1 April.

Instead:

You can’t get a ticket refund after 1 April.

Don’t overload readers with multiple messages – tell one story and tell it well.

Do: As a postgraduate student, you can specialise in the study of childhood and youth and benefit from placements with local children’s organisations.

Don’t: The School of Education and Social Work prides itself on its academic staff’s expertise in the study of childhood and youth in both the Department of Education and the Department of Social Work and Social Care. We have recently launched an undergraduate and a postgraduate taught degree drawing on this expertise.

Bullet points

Short bulleted lists make it easy for readers to quickly understand your copy.

Rather than:

You will be encouraged to develop skills that philosophy is especially good at fostering – skills of critical reading, analysis and presentation of arguments, and the ability to recognise and question fundamental assumptions.

Instead:

As part of your philosophy module, you’ll gain skills in:

  • critical reading
  • analysing and presenting arguments
  • questioning assumptions.

Read about how bulleted lists allow better navigation.

Stick to our style

Write following the University house style. This covers numbers, text styling and naming, including abbreviations.

Tone of voice

See our tone of voice guidelines, including how to prioritise benefits for the reader.

Proof your work

Proof your content, look for spelling mistakes and check links to make sure they work.

Also double-check the official names of people and organisations. You can use the profiles search on the Sussex website to check people’s names.

Another pair of eyes can be useful for proofing your own work.

How people read web pages

The majority of people will only read the first few lines of a web page.

They:

  • skim read online content
  • often only read between 20 and 28% of words on a web page
  • might have come to a page from Google, another search engine or an ad campaign, so may only have limited information about the context of the page.

Links

Write a short description of what you’re linking to and hyperlink that.

Rather than:

See www.sussex.ac.uk/study/accommodation

or

For housing options click here

Instead:

Find out about accommodation options at Sussex

This is important for visually-impaired people using screen reader software.

Read best practice guidance for links in web content.

Keywords

Keywords help people find our pages when they search for them online. Make sure you include keywords that the relevant to your content, and try to vary the synonyms for them farther down the page.

Put keywords at the front of headings as a lot of people skim down the left-hand side of a page to find pertinent details.

See how keywords boost our rankings in search results and best practice advice.

Frequently asked questions

There are pros and cons to the frequently-asked-question (FAQ) format.

FAQs serve a purpose when:

  • an organisation spends too much time and money fielding queries
  • there is a strategic communication value to having them
  • they genuinely answer the most frequent queries you receive.

However, FAQs are not necessarily the solution and they can’t fix processes.

From a user’s perspective, FAQs:

  • increase cognitive load
  • are difficult to navigate if there’s no logical order or grouping
  • often repeat information elsewhere and duplicate search results
  • include important details in a different context – travel details could be jumbled in with payment information
  • don’t reflect their behaviour – few search queries are written as questions
  • take longer to read – rather than front-loading a sentence with what they’re looking for, questions inevitably start with how/what/when/why
  • can resemble a dumping ground of information, rather than part of a content strategy.

Instead, create simple pages with clear headings that can be found when people use a search engine.


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