Top Tips for Good Writing

The Basics

  1. This institution may be called the University of Pittsburgh, Pitt, or (on subsequent references) the University. These are the only acceptable references.
  2. Is that big hospital on the hill Presbyterian University Hospital or UPMC Presbyterian? Check your facts. Sometimes we assume things that we don’t really know, and it can be embarrassing. If you write that there’s parking at the corner of DeSoto and Bouquet streets, make sure DeSoto and Bouquet intersect (they don’t). And if you write that Tony Dorsett graduated from Pitt, make sure he actually did (he didn’t, but he was enrolled here from 1973 to 1976 and was a member of the Class of ’77). Check all proper nouns (names of people, places, and events), numbers (dates, years, and phone numbers), 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 Web sites.
  3. If Joe Alumnus earned a PhD, then Jane Alumnus should not earn a Ph.D. Writing style should be
    consistent—always—throughout a story, throughout a magazine, throughout a series. If you spell
    out the month when writing a date, do not abbreviate a month later in the story or publication. If you
    highlight the names of alumni in bold type in a magazine or newsletter article, they should be bold
    throughout the article. 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. 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. No one wants the sweet smell of success to become the sweat smell of success. And we check lost and found when we lose an item, not when we loose it. Check your spelling, and consider asking your colleagues to proofread your writing.
  6. To capitalize or not to capitalize? That is often the question. Capitalize proper nouns (the School of Social Work, the Center for Health Equity) but not references to them (the school, the center). Capitalize a person’s title only when it immediately precedes his or her name (Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, the chancellor, Dean Patricia Kroboth, the dean). And capitalize parts of the world and regions (Western Pennsylvania). 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. So don’t do it! It’s only half as much work for your thumb.
  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

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 subject-pronoun agreement. In the grammatically incorrect sentence, “Each of the students are responsible for doing their homework,” each (one) is singular, which is why the verb should be is and the pronoun should be his/her. This sentence can easily be reworded, “The students are responsible for doing their homework,” which is what we’d recommend to avoid that annoying his/her construction. Here’s another one: “The Board of Trustees is planning their next move.” The board is a singular unit, so their should be its. 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; for instance, “Father objected to Mary’s singing.” Also, avoid superfluous prepositions, as in “She was looking out of the window.” The word of is not necessary.

    Finally, dangling modifiers are phrases or clauses—usually introductory phrases or clauses—that modify the wrong word, resulting in an illogical statement. The imprecise placement of the phrase within the sentence produces the problem. For example, this is correct: “The chemist believes the molecules, in a liquid state, could prove beneficial.” Not: “In a liquid state, the chemist believes the molecules could prove beneficial.” The molecules are in a liquid state, not the chemist.
  2. The law affects our writing. At Pitt, the full name of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business must be used in the first and most prominent references in a publication. That stipulation is in the contract between the University and the Katz family. 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, available at the University Store on Fifth and most bookstores, includes an excellent summary of libel law.
  3. Is it lay or lie? Insure or ensure? Constituted of or composed of? Historic or historical? 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. Capitalize Black, White, and other races. 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 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. Academic, medical, scientific, and technological terms that would be unfamiliar to the readers of a good general-interest magazine or newspaper (Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) must be explained.
  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. (Passive: The hypothesis of the researchers was proved by their study. Active: The researchers’ study proved their hypothesis.) 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. Headlines that are supposed to be funny can wind up seeming trite. Consider the context of what you’re writing; a document that’s the official voice of University policy requires a different tone than an e-mail to colleagues or friends. Your personal Web site can be reflective of your personality, but your office’s Web site probably shouldn’t be. When in doubt, leave it out.