Writing content

All content follows the Chicago Manual of Style unless otherwise noted in the content guidelines. When writing news articles, such as on Continuum, follow Associated Press (AP) style guides instead. Review all University-level editorial styles.

Writing for people

Before writing any content, ask yourself three questions:

Titles and headings

Use sentence casing for all but proper nouns

Avoid title casing. Use sentence casing to write for all headings, buttons, labels, and menu items.

Many readers, particularly on the web, rely heavily on scanning. Because most of the text we read is in sentence casing, it is the most predictable and scannable way to relay information. This is particularly impactful for people with language-based learning disorders who may rely on the shape of the word more than the letters themselves.

Sentence casing is the easiest way to be consistent across documents and authors.

Sentence casing makes proper nouns easier to identify when they appear, and eliminates potential ambiguities between branded nouns and their very different unbranded doppelgängers. (For example: Libraries vs. libraries, Coke vs. coke, Apple vs. apple.)

Also avoid using all caps, which can be problematic for people with some screen readers, who may have to listen to that text letter by letter.


“Guidelines for Writing Content on the Web” (no)
“Guidelines for writing content on the web” (yes)


Group related ideas together using descriptive headings and subheadings. Keep headings concise and easy to scan.

  • Avoid punctuation.
  • Don’t use periods at the end of headings.
  • Capitalize the first word of a heading.
  • Capitalize proper nouns.

Keep headings to no more than 6 words. For page titles, the character count ideally does not exceed 30 including spaces where possible. For sub headings, aim for less than 40 characters including white spaces.

Letters following slashes

Do not capitalize the first letter following a slash. Avoid using slashes if possible, words are preferred.


“Books/Articles” (no)
“Books/articles” (yes)

Simplified writing

Literacy level

Use Hemingway App as a measure to keep your content at or below the 8th grade level, using the techniques outlined below.

Just because someone can read at a PhD level doesn’t mean they want to. Simplified writing doesn’t equal a simplified message. If content comes in at a readability score at the 7th grade level, reading time drops by 60%, and comprehension goes up by 75%.

Simplified writing makes content more accessible to people of all literacy levels, people for whom English is a second language, people using text-to-audio and braille displays, and to people with learning disorders and cognitive impairments.


People come to the University Libraries website to get things done. Write and structure content to help them understand and take the most important and effective actions to accomplish their goals.

Use the imperative verbs to start sentences. When reading the sentence, it should sound like the person is being told what to do. Sentences do not begin with “It/there is” or “There are”.

Avoid permissive language like “you can”.


“You can either bring books to the front desk or the book drop.” (no)
“Books may be returned to the front desk or the book drop.” (better)
“Return books to the front desk or the book drop.” (yes)


Keep paragraphs short, and put the most important information in the first two paragraphs.

  • Paragraphs should be 3-5 sentences max, no more than around 6 lines.
  • The sentences should be short, no more than 15-20 words.
  • Bulleted lists should be used in lieu of items listed in paragraph form.
  • Be direct, and break grammar rules if it simplifies your message.

The longer the word, sentence, or paragraph, the longer the brain has to postpone comprehending ideas. Because they require more mental work by the reader, longer words and sentences are harder to read and understand.

Ann Handley, Everybody Writes


“Partake of this libation.” (no)
“Drink this.” (yes)

“That’s the purpose for which it was intended.” (no)
“That’s what it’s for.” (yes)


Use bulleted lists where appropriate.

If each bullet stands alone, use proper sentence structure for each bullet.

If the bulleted list is an extension of a sentence, ensure that each bullet is:

  • not started with a capitalized letter,
  • readable as if the sentence only contained that one bullet,
  • joined together with punctuation as if a compound group, and
  • ended by tying the last bullet with a conjunction, such as “and”.


Active voice

The passive voice reverses expected sentence structure, requiring more work by the reader, in addition to adding unnecessary words. The active voice is direct and requires fewer words to accomplish the same clarity.


“Books should be checked out on the 1st floor.” (no)
“Check out books on the 1st floor.” (yes)

Referring to people

Point of view

Write without person perspective whenever possible. Write in the 2nd person to give a personal feel when necessary.


“He/she should return materials to the front desk.” (no)
“You should return materials to the front desk.” (better)
“Return materials to the front desk.” (yes)

Additional guidelines for referring to people with disabilities

  1. Use the language preferred by the specific community in question. For instance, the autistic community uses identify-first language (e.g., “I am an autistic person”); and intellectual disability communities often prefer person-first language (e.g. “I am a person with Down Syndrome.”). If you don”t know, ask.
  2. Awareness of community preferences doesn’t always equal personal preferences. If a person corrects you and says, “No, I prefer to be called ‘a person with autism,’”, then use their preference. Acknowledging humanity means, among other things, respecting boundaries.
  3. In a scholarly context, use the conventions of the discipline or journal (often person-first language). If not following convention, state the reason. For instance, if studying the autistic community that prefers identify-first, include an introductory note like “I am using identify-first language because this is what the autistic community that I study prefers. For more on this debate, see [x] sources.”
  4. Language to avoid
    • Diagnosis-language, especially where community is limited or hasn’t expressed preference (e.g., “They’re epileptic.“)
    • Euphemisms (“differently abled,” “challenged,” “handicapable”). For a picture of what’s at stake, see the #saytheword Twitter campaign (NPR interview of the #saytheword originator)
    • Nouns (e.g., “the blind,” “the deaf”)
    • Tragedy language (e.g., “wheelchair bound,” “suffering from autism”)
    • “Special needs” — this is a euphemism, but it’s so ubiquitous, it’s called out.

Read more about identify-first language by Lydia Brown at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).

Referring to people

Use person/people to describe those on your website. Avoid “user,” “audience,” “patron,” “customer,” or “he/she”. Always put the person first and any describing adjectives afterwards to emphasize the person as a whole and then only to specify a certain relevant perspective of the person. Identify first versus person first language.


“disabled users” (no)
“disabled people” (better)
“people with disabilities” (yes)


Never use binary (i.e he/she) pronouns unless explicitly discussing a specific person whose gender identity is shared. If a pronoun is necessary where gender has not been expressly provided by the person, use they/them.

Avoid gendered nouns such as “fireman” and “mankind”.


“He/she has a paper that requires citations.” (no)
“They have a paper that requires citations.” (better)
“The paper requires citations.” (yes)



Always use the serial (Oxford) comma for a series of three or more to remove the potential for confusion.


“Jane’s favorite people are her parents, Barack Obama and Taylor Swift.” (no)

“Jane’s favorite people are her parents, Barack Obama, and Taylor Swift.” (yes)


Use parentheses sparingly to provide examples, add an aside, or introduce an abbreviation or jargon.

Your sentence should make sense when you read it out loud without the parenthetical text.

If a sentence ends with a parenthetical that’s only part of a larger sentence, the period goes outside the closing parenthesis. If the parenthetical itself is a whole sentence, the period goes inside the parenthesis.


Avoid the use of ampersands except in headings and page titles.

Quotation marks

Placeholder pending Drupal capabilities.

Dashes and hyphens

Dashes and hyphens aren’t the same thing. A hyphen makes compound words. An en dash (the shorter dash) expresses a range of values (times, years, dollar amounts). And an em dash (the longer dash) creates an interruption in a sentence, like a semicolon.

Don’t include a space on either side of a hyphen or dash.

Use em dashes sparingly, and if using an em dash, use a true em dash, and not double dashes or hyphens.