Top Tips for Good Writing

The Basics

  1. The University of Pittsburgh, Pitt and the University are the only acceptable references to this institution.
  2. Check your facts. Sometimes we assume things that we don’t really know, and it can be embarrassing. Check all proper nouns (names of people, places and events), numbers (dates, years and phone numbers) and people’s titles, and generally check that what you’re writing is true. When checking your facts, make sure the sources you are using are credible and up to date, especially websites.
  3. Writing style should be consistent—always—throughout a story, throughout a magazine, throughout a series. Instances of inconsistency can look like mistakes.
  4. When writing out a Pitt address, the first line is always University of Pittsburgh. The next line is the school, then the department and then a person’s name (if the mail is going to someone specific). Then write the office number and building. Finally, write the street address and the city, state and zip code.
    See the Addresses section for details.
  5. Don’t rely on spell check! One letter can make the difference between the word you want and an embarrassing mistake. Spell check will not flag a misspelled word if your misspelling is another (correctly spelled) word. Check your spelling, and consider asking your colleagues to proofread your writing.
  6. To capitalize or not to capitalize? That is often the question. Capitalizing a word because it is important may not be the correct thing to do. For everything you ever wanted to know about capitalization, see the Capitalization section of this manual.
  7. Old habits are hard to break, but let’s break this one. In the word-processing age, we use only one space after a period or a colon. The convention of using two spaces between sentences and after a colon is a holdover from the typewriter age, and it went out with carbon paper.
  8. Learn the proper way to refer to degrees.
    These are right:
    Bachelor of Science, bachelor’s degree, BS
    Master of Arts, master’s degree, MA
    Doctor of Philosophy, doctorate, PhD
    These are wrong:
    Bachelor’s of Science, Bachelors Degree, B.S.

The Finer Points

  1. Don’t leave the rules of grammar back in grade school. Subject-verb agreement is an important rule, and so is subjectpronoun agreement. Beware of collective nouns, and pay attention to subjects, verbs and pronouns, as these kinds of errors are both embarrassing and common. In addition, watch out for proper usage of gerunds, which are the -ing forms of verbs used as nouns. If the gerund is to be modified by a noun or pronoun, the noun or pronoun must be in the possessive case. Also, avoid superfluous prepositions. Finally, avoid dangling modifiers, which are phrases or clauses—usually introductory phrases or clauses—that modify the wrong word, resulting in an illogical statement.
  2. The law affects our writing. At Pitt, the full names of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, Swanson School of Engineering and Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences must be used in the first and most prominent references in a publication. That stipulation is in the contract between the University and the donors. Court rulings about affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan have altered the way we describe outreach to disadvantaged and underrepresented student populations. We also must be careful not to libel or defame people in our writing. The Associated Press Stylebook includes an excellent summary of libel law.
  3. See Appendix 1 for a list of commonly misused words and how to use them properly. Your boss might even compliment you on how you’ve complemented your professional development with this style manual!
  4. Watch your words. To show sensitivity to the rich variety of ethnicities, races, religions and other aspects of individuals’ identities, we must respect cultural, personal and religious differences. Don’t mention ethnic, racial or other individual characteristics unless they are pertinent and their relevance is clear to the reader. If an attribute is relevant and you’re writing about a specific person, find out the term the person prefers. Avoid using gender-specific words such as chairman, mailman and fireman when you can easily substitute words such as chair, letter carrier and firefighter. Also, use the terms winter recess and holiday party rather than Christmas break and Christmas party, as not everyone celebrates the same holidays.

Making It Sing

  1. Don’t lean on jargon! We want people to understand the great work that is being done at the University of Pittsburgh and by its alumni, so explain it in simple, everyday English. Jargon includes any words, phrases and descriptions used by members of a discipline to describe their work to other people in the same field, and we must avoid it when we write for external audiences.
  2. Keep your writing active whenever possible, including in headlines. All sentences have subjects, objects and verbs. When the subject of a sentence performs an action, the sentence is written in active voice. When the subject is being acted upon, the sentence is written in passive voice. Using passive voice makes writing harder to understand.
  3. Humor is a matter of personal taste, and wordplay, sarcasm, exaggeration, and other devices should be used with great care. Consider the context of what you’re writing; a document that’s the official voice of University policy requires a different tone than an email to colleagues or friends. When in doubt, leave it out.