Policy Writing Guidance
Departments should follow the recommended writing guidance below when drafting a new or revising an existing university policy.
General Writing Guidance
- Keep it simple. Policies should be written in plain language – not legalese. The policy should be easily understood by the entire university community.
- Keep it general. Policies cannot contemplate all possible situations. Policies should be written broadly but with enough clarity to apply to varying circumstances. Detailed guidance can be provided in FAQ’s or in detailed process guidelines or standards.
- Make it relevant. The policy should clearly tell the audience why it exists, who it affects, major conditions and restrictions, when and under what circumstances it applies, and how it should be executed. “Terms of Art” should be clearly defined for the reader under the “Definitions” section.
- Check for accuracy and compliance. Ensure the draft policy complies with all State Board of Education policies, governing university policies or bylaws, current federal and state laws/regulations, and industry requirements.
- Ensure the policy can be enforced. A policy written without intention to enforce it, or written committing to obligations without ensuring proper resources, should not be written.
- Clearly state who does what. Clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities of departments and individuals. Ensure the policy states who is authorized to make certain decisions and who is responsible for carrying out certain duties.
- Less is more. A policy need not be lengthy. In many instances, shorter is better. The goal of the policy is to clearly convey important information concisely and in a clear manner. Longer policies can be difficult to understand, interpret, and apply.
Use the University Policy Template
Use the University Policy Template (MS Word format) when drafting or revising your policy.
Following the template is important for consistency and accessibility. The policy template is designed to help ensure access to people of all abilities.
All policies should be drafted using Arial font for headers and Garamond 12 pt font for paragraph text.
Write for Your Audience
The audience for most policies is the entire university community. The language must be understandable to the entire audience, not just subject matter or technical experts.
- Assume readers have basic knowledge of the campus and university community but no knowledge of specific policies or procedures.
- Write with clarity using precise words, short sentences, and understandable terminology. If technical terminology or words with specialized meaning are used, define them under the “Definitions” section of the policy. Be consistent with terminology using the same words throughout the policy.
- Use “must” instead of “shall” and be intentional when using “should,” which implies a suggestions rather than a requirement. Remember university policies are generally enforcing requirements, not communicating permissive guidelines or suggestions.
Use Plain Language
Plain language helps ensure the policy is clear, concise, and understood by the entire university community. A helpful resource is the Federal Plain Language Guidelines developed to promote the use of plain language for all government communications.
- Use active voice to clearly state who does what. Passive voice obscures who is responsible for what. In active voice, the department or individual acting is the subject of the sentence. In a passive sentence, the person or item that is acted upon is the subject of the sentence (e.g., write “the Associate Vice President must….” instead of “it is the ultimate responsibility of the Associate Vice President to…..”; write “notify applicants who were not selected for an interview….” instead of “applicants who were not selected for an interview must be notified…”). In limited instances, passive voice is appropriate when one action follows another as a matter of law, and there is no actor other than the law itself.
- Use simple and direct language avoiding jargon and qualifiers (e.g., totally, completely, definitely, etc.).
- Avoid sentences with multiple clauses.
- Minimize abbreviations. Abbreviations can interrupt the reading process requiring the reader to look back in the policy, or consult the definitions, to remember the abbreviation. In cases where an abbreviation has a common usage, don’t define them. It takes up space and annoys the reader. Examples include: PhD, ADA, CIA, ATM.
- Use proper punctuation and grammar to help your audience understand the policy.
- Use “must” to indicate requirements rather than “shall.” The use of “shall” is imprecise and can indicate either an obligation or prediction. Instead of using “shall,” use:
– “must” for an obligation,
– “Must not” for a prohibition,
– “may” for a discretionary action, and
– “should” for a recommendation.
- Omit excess words
Excess Words Plain Alternatives is able to can be responsible for must in accordance with under in the event that if with regard to out a sufficient number of enough in order to to as a result of because, because of, since as well as also, and as long as if, since at all times always (or leave out)
Use Gender-Inclusive Language
Policies must be written using gender-neutral and gender-sensitive language.
- Do not use masculine or feminine pronouns as the default; use “they” or “the individual.”
- Avoid using gendered-nouns such as chairman, man, mankind. Instead, use gender-neutral nouns such as chair, department head, coordinator, humanity, individual, or person.
- A helpful resource is the The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s web-based handout, Gender-Inclusive Language.
Follow the University’s Style Guide
- Use consistent terminology through the policy (e.g., do not use “institution” and “university” interchangeably).
- Use Boise State University and Boise State on a second reference. Do not use BSU.
- Do not capitalize “university” except when part of an official name.
- Do not capitalize “college” except when used as part of an official title.
- Do not capitalize job titles (president, provost, dean) except when used as a formal title before a name.
- Do not capitalize “department” except when using the formal title, as in Department of History.
- Website is one word and http:// is deleted from web addresses except when needed for a direct link.
For additional style guidance, consult the Boise State University Style Guide.
Avoid Complex Tables, Visual Aids, and Graphics
Tables and other graphics can make complex information easier to understand; however, they can pose accessibility issues for persons with disabilities. Tables and other graphics should not be the primary means of communicating information or policy requirements, and complex tables and graphics are discouraged. If they are used to aid in understanding, they must be accessible.