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University Writing Style Guide

Our philosophy: “Think of the reader first.”

Boise State stories should be accessible, clear and meaningful for our audience – the general public, not exclusively academics. We want people to read our stories, take away useful information and feel a connection to the university. Make it easy for them.

We use Associated Press style (the style most news organizations use) with some exceptions noted in this guide.

This writing guide is a living, evolving document. Contact Anna Webb at annawebb@boisestate.edu with questions and suggestions.

The Basics

Abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms

  • Avoid using them whenever possible.
  • Exceptions: In some cases (CEO, GPA, NASA, U.S., NAACP, STEM, LGBTQIA+) abbreviations are more well known than their long form and are fine to use. Noting time zones as abbreviations is also acceptable.
  • Avoid abbreviations in parentheses after a first reference.
  • Never use an abbreviation in a headline.
  • Never start a sentence with an abbreviation.

Active voice

  • Use it. Think: subject plus strong verb for all of your sentences.
  • Example: The law was passed (passive) vs. The Idaho Legislature passed the law (active).
  • Example: He was nominated for the board by Idaho Power (passive) vs. Idaho Power nominated him for the board (active).

Quoting people in stories

  • Quotes must earn their real estate. They should illustrate a compelling point or reveal a source’s voice or character. Think of them as a story’s “seasonings.”
  • Just because a source says something doesn’t mean you have to include it – or include it in its entirety – in your story. Be critical. Ask yourself if a quote is adding value to your story.
  • Don’t use a quote to convey information you can paraphrase in a sentence or two.
  • Don’t use a quote to reiterate what you’ve written in the previous paragraph or elsewhere in the story.
  • When attributing a quote, use subject plus verb construction. “Hello,” Jane said, rather than “Hello,” said Jane. The exception is when you’re including a job title, or more information about Jane. “Hello,” said Jane, the first woman to swim across the lake.

Simplicity

  • Strive for brevity and clarity in your writing. This is not “dumbing down” your writing. It’s making it more likely that someone will read your story. What the Associated Press said in 1911 remains true today: “Good style favors short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, short stories.”
  • Avoid unnecessary words. For example: Don’t write “He will be attending the conference” when you can write “He will attend the conference.” Don’t use words like “utilize” when “use” will do. Don’t write “in order to” when you can write “to.”
  • As with quotes, look at your stories critically. Cut information that readers don’t need to know.

Sources

  • As campus writers, we are constantly learning about new, often complicated subjects. We have to understand them well enough to translate them into written form accessible to most readers. This isn’t easy…
  • If you don’t understand something a source says, ask them to explain it again, or explain it in a different way. Don’t apologize. It’s our responsibility.
  • On sharing stories with sources before we publish them: The university writers and sources are partners in telling Boise State stories. It’s okay to share your stories with campus sources to check for accuracy. In rare cases, we share stories with sources outside the university before we publish them. Consult with your editor on a case-by-case basis.
  • Note: This practice differs from journalism where reporters might call sources to check facts or quotes, but do not send stories to sources before publication.
  • Stories should have more than one source (some alternative presentation stories: Q&As, photos with long captions, may be exceptions). If you’re writing a profile, interview someone who knows the person you’re writing about. Look for quotes that go beyond praise and cliché language and that share something meaningful about your subject.
  • If you’re writing a story about a Boise State project that benefits the community or has implications for the community, interview someone in the community. Find out what the work at Boise State means beyond campus.
  • If you quote a student in a story, include their hometown, year and major.

Frequent Style Questions

A

abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms

  • Avoid using them whenever possible.
  • Exceptions: In some cases (CEO, GPA, NASA, U.S., NAACP, STEM, LGBTQIA+) abbreviations are more well known than their long form and are fine to use. Noting time zones as abbreviations is also acceptable.
  • Avoid abbreviations in parentheses after a first reference.
  • Never use an abbreviation in a headline.
  • Never start a sentence with an abbreviation.

academic and administrative titles

  • Lowercase formal titles when they’re after a name: Lauren Griswold is the chief communications and marketing officer.
  • Uppercase formal titles when they’re before a name: College of Arts and Sciences Dean Leslie Durham will attend the conference.
  • Do not capitalize occupational titles and job descriptions.
  • We break from AP style and capitalize professor titles when they are before a name.
  • Capitalize named and endowed chairs and professorships, even when they fall after a name: Stephanie “Sam” Martin, the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs, will speak at the conference.
  • Drop titles and first names on subsequent reference.
  • Dr.: Use only for a medical doctor. An exception: President Tromp prefers a “Dr.” title.

academic degrees

  • Lowercase degrees if spelled out: bachelor of arts, master of science, doctorate, doctor of education. Use an apostrophe in the short form: bachelor’s degree, master’s degree.
  • Capitalize the degree when it includes a subject: Master of Arts in Communications.
  • In stories, use bachelor’s degree or bachelor’s rather than BA or BS; master’s degree or master’s rather than MA or MS; doctoral degree or doctorate rather than Ph. D. or Ed., law degree rather than JD.
  • Exceptions: MBA, MFA.
  • Use associate degree, not associate’s.

academic honors

  • Honors including cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude are lowercase.

academic programs

  • Lowercase except for formal program names.
  • Example: She is studying chemistry, accounting, and pursuing a certificate from Harvard Business School Online at Boise State.

alumni

  • Use alum for an individual graduate, regardless of gender.
  • Use alumni for the plural form, regardless of gender.

B

Boise State University

  • Do not use “BSU.”
  • Boise State vs. Boise State University: Depends on audience and context. Use your best judgment.

C

capitalization

  • Do not capitalize “university” except when it’s part of an official name. Boise State University is Idaho’s metropolitan university.
  • College: Lowercase except when you use a college’s full name: Boise State is home to a number of colleges including the College of Arts and Sciences.
  • Capitalize the first word after a colon if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.

commas

  • We do not use the Oxford comma.
  • What’s an Oxford comma? It’s the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list. Example: We ate carrots, potatoes, and lentils. The Oxford comma is the comma appearing before “and.”

commencement

  • Capitalize when referring to the official May or December ceremony.
  • Lowercase in general reference: Boise State’s Winter Commencement will take place in ExtraMile Arena. The university holds commencement ceremonies twice a year.

course titles

  • Capitalize official course titles in text with no quotation marks.
  • Example: This fall he is enrolled in Synchronic Methods in Anthropology.

D

dates and events

  • Follow this order for events listings: Time, date, place.
  • Do not use “st,” “nd,” or rd.” The event is Sept. 1 on the Quad.
  • Use a comma after dates included with years. Boise Junior College opened on Sept. 6, 1932, at St. Margaret’s Hall.
  • Time notation examples: 10 a.m. 10:15 a.m.
  • Write out noon rather than 12 p.m.
  • Abbreviate Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec.
  • If you refer to a month without an exact date, write it in full. Example: The dorms open in January, but she can’t move in until Jan. 15.

death

  • Use death, die. Don’t use euphemisms like “passed on” or “passed away” except in a direct quote.
  • Headlines can be difficult when you’re writing about someone’s death. A couple possibilities: Boise State community remembers Joe Smith or Jane Smith leaves a legacy of innovation, etc.

departments

  • Uppercase when using the formal title, as in the Department of History.
  • Lowercase when used informally. Example: Students in the chemistry department sponsored the project.

directions and regions

  • Lowercase north, east, southwest, etc. The event will take place on the east side of the stadium.
  • Capitalize when you’re talking about a region: Southwest Idaho lies directly north of Nevada. Southwest Idaho is one region in the West.

disability

  • Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.
  • Ask sources how they would like to be described.

E

exclamation points

  • Don’t use them.

F

fellow and fellowship

  • Lowercase unless it’s part of an official title.

G

gender identity

  • Refer to gender or sexual orientation only when it’s relevant to your story.
  • Ask sources for their preferred pronouns and how they would like to be described.

H

headlines

  • Write short, compelling headlines in an active voice. Close to 40% of our readers read our stories on their phones. We don’t want headlines that fill entire screens.
  • Use sentence case. Capitalize only the first letter of your headline and proper nouns.
  • Last names only in headlines.
  • Use single quotes for quotation marks (for example, for book titles in headlines).

headings

  • Use them to break up longer stories. Make them descriptive for screen readers.

I

italics

  • Don’t use them. Screen readers can’t read them.

L

legislative titles

  • On first reference, use Gov., Rep. or Sen. before the name.
  • Do not use legislative titles before a name on second reference unless they are part of a quotation.
  • Spell out and lowercase representative and senator in text.

legislature

  • Capitalize when referring to a state’s legislature and in subsequent specific references: the Idaho Legislature; the state Legislature.
  • Lowercase when used in a generic sense: The legislature is the law-making body of government.

lists

  • Use a colon when introducing lists.

M

majors

  • Lowercase except for majors that are proper nouns. Her major is computer science. He is an English major.

N

numbers

  • Write out numbers one through nine. Use numeric figures for numbers 10 and greater.
  • Exceptions: ages and measurements. Her two daughters are 1 month old and 3 years old. He is 6 feet 2 inches tall.
  • Do not begin a sentence with a numeral.
  • Exception: You can begin a sentence with a year. 2009 was a banner year.

P

percentages

  • Use % when it’s with a number. Spell out otherwise.
  • Example: Boise State’s in-state student population is 66%. The percentage of out-of-state students is growing.

photo captions

  • Use this format: Photographer name, Boise State Visual Services.
  • Non-Boise State photos: Photo provided by followed by their name.
  • If a photo has three or fewer people in it, you must name them.
  • Remember that photo captions can be storytelling elements. Use them to share good quotes or additional details for your story.
  • Note: Don’t duplicate information in a caption and alt text since that would be redundant for some readers. If you have a caption that is telling a story or providing context but not describing the photo, use the alt text to provide a visual description of the image.

Q

quotation marks

  • Use quotation marks for article titles, books, movies, presentations, titles of special events (art exhibits, touring displays).
  • Do not use quotation marks for the titles of periodicals and journals. Example: The journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment published her article, “The life cycle of a horsefly.”

R

race

  • Refer to race only when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling. If it is, remember that many racial terms, like other parts of our language, are actively evolving.
  • Ask sources how they would like to be described.
Black vs. African American
  • According to AP, both terms are acceptable in the U.S., but are not always interchangeable. Many Black Americans are of Caribbean descent, for example.
  • Black is becoming a more popular, modern term denoting a shared identity and culture.
  • Use the capitalized term “Black” as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black literature, Black studies. Note, the term “white” used in this way is not capitalized.
American Indians vs. Native Americans
  • According to AP, both are acceptable terms in general references when referring to two or more people in the U.S. of different tribal affiliations.
  • For individuals, use the name of the tribe. He is a Navajo commissioner. She is a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
  • Some tribes and tribal nations use member; others use citizen. If in doubt, use citizen.
Asian American
  • When possible, refer to a person’s country of origin or follow the person’s preference. Be as specific as possible. Instead of Asian American, for example, use Japanese American or Chinese American, etc.
Latino/Latina/Latinx/Hispanic
  • Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican or Mexican American.
  • Many prefer an inclusive term: Hispanic/Latinx.

S

seasons

  • Lowercase except as part of a title. Each spring, students sponsor the popular Spring Fling event.

states

  • Spell out state names.
  • Omit “Idaho” when referring to cities within the state unless it’s in one of our publications with readers outside of Idaho.

W

websites

  • Link websites to hyperlinks that are descriptive, concise and give the reader an expectation of the destination, i.e. avoid “click here,” “read more,” etc.
  • Do not simply paste the URL into a story. Additionally, use unique text for each link and do not have multiple sites linked to the same text, i.e. hyperlinking “Boise State” to multiple URLs within the domain.
  • Example: The Boise State webguide contains useful information on best practices for web accessibility.
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