THE USF WRITERS’ GUIDE
To convey our school’s personality of “sharp minds, big hearts, and independent spirits,” all of us at USF should use sharp words, positive constructions, and fresh expressions.
But how do we do that, exactly?
When you write any message, in any medium, to any audience, please keep in mind
the following tips.
CUT THE CLUTTER
When you lose words, you gain power.
NO: At the present time, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that, due to unusually robust traffic, our system is not able to successfully provide users with an optimal throughput solution.
YES: Your computer is slow because our server is overloaded.
MAKE YOUR WRITING TANGIBLE
To help your reader understand you, use words that he or she can see, hear, smell, touch, taste, count, or measure.
NO: An associate coordinator will reach out soon.
YES: We’ll send you a welcome kit within one week.
Even when you’re talking about abstractions, please use specific words — especially verbs.
NO: The school provides education students with excellence in academics paired with an ongoing visibility to social justice issues.
YES: We train teachers to open eyes, sharpen minds, and serve the underserved.
WRITE WITH NOUNS AND VERBS
Nouns and verbs rule because they create clear images in your readers’ heads. Adjectives and adverbs don’t because they can’t.
NO: Following the victory, Jessica celebrated exuberantly. (What does “exuberantly” look like? What does “exuberantly” sound like? And aren’t celebrations by definition exuberant?)
YES: At the buzzer, Jessica leaped skyward. “WCC, baby!” she yelled, her arms raised and her face aglow.
Often, adjectives can create a logical fallacy called begging the question, in which a writer makes a value judgment and slips it into a sentence unannounced, unearned, and unsupported. The writer tries to pass this word off as a fact and, in so doing, bullies the reader. Example:
NO: Our expert faculty are accessible … (If you’ve already established that the faculty are experts, then the word “expert” is not necessary here. If you haven’t yet established that the faculty are experts, then the word “expert” has fallen from the sky. “Wait a minute,” says your reader. “Who said the faculty are experts? Experts in what? What does ‘expert’ mean, anyway? And who said teachers had to be experts to be accessible?”)
YES: At USF, your professors know your name and are happy to help you.
AVOID CLICHÉS, BOTH IN WORDS AND IN CONSTRUCTIONS
We use clichés because they’re easy. But each cliché erodes our image. So think twice about words and constructions grown feeble through overuse.
NO: Solution. Best practices. Unique. Disruptive. Effectively. Strategic. Strategically. Leading edge. Innovative. Excellence. Successfully. We were able to …
At the University of San Francisco, we are committed to providing … (Don’t tell me what you are committed to providing. Just provide it.)
The program is designed to … (Don’t tell me what the program is designed to do. Tell me what it does.)
I am writing to inform you … (Just tell me what you want to tell me.)
We are excited to announce … (Don’t tell me you’re excited. Instead, excite me.)
From Geoffrey Chaucer to Toni Morrison, our program … (“From-to” is a cliché.)
Whether you like sailing, skateboarding, or shopping, San Francisco will suit your style.
(“Whether you” is a cliché. As for alliteration, go easy.)
WATCH OUT FOR DEPENDENT CLAUSES AND FAULTY LOGIC
NO: A specialist in urban planning, Smith lives in Oakland. [The first clause (“A specialist in urban planning”) has no particular bearing on the second clause (“Smith lives in Oakland.”) Therefore, the two clauses have no logical connection. Watch for two more examples of faulty logic below.]
DO WRITE OPENING SENTENCES — BUT ONLY ONE PER PARAGRAPH
NO: An Oregon native, Hansen lives for soccer. She named her children after famous soccer players, and she and her family attend all Dons home matches. Hansen aims high in everything she does. Last year, she …
YES: Hansen lives for soccer. She named her daughter after Mia Hamm and her son after Lionel Messi, and the three of them attend all Dons home matches.
Hansen also aims high in everything she does. Last year, she …
ABOVE ALL: REMEMBER YOUR READER
Don’t begin any piece by speaking about you or about us. Speak first to me (your reader) and appeal to my hopes, fears, desires.
NO: A Message From Arts and Sciences
YES: Pope Francis and Kendrick Lamar to Kick off New Lecture Series
NO: Stephanie Bates, career planning coordinator, shares best practices for strategically and effectively using the free LinkedIn platform.
YES: Is your LinkedIn page ready for the world?
NO: Ben Levy is a cognitive neuroscientist and USF assistant professor of psychology. The co-author of a fascinating new research study, he lives in Burlingame.
YES: Does a walk on the beach bring a smile to your face? It’s no wonder. New research co-authored by USF’s Ben Levy shows that communing with nature is good for you — and might even make you smarter.
Remember: No matter how selfless your reader may be, he or she first wants to know only one thing: “What’s in it for me?” So speak to your reader about your reader. Convince him or her to care. And after each sentence you write, ask yourself “So what?” If you don’t, your reader will.