Voice and Style
Use the active voice
Our writing should be concise and direct. We prefer the active voice because it supports brevity and makes written content more engaging, too.
The active voice helps the reader identify the subject of the sentence. In the following example, the person who submits the form is essential information. Omitting that leads to a confusing and impersonal sentence.
Passive: The request form must be submitted to the Registrar.
Active: Submit the request form to the Registrar.
Along with deemphasizing who should take an action, the passive voice is usually longer, too. Wordy instructions are harder to follow.
Passive: The case number should be saved in your records.
Active: Save the case number in your records.
When in doubt, cut directly to the action word and give the reader clear directions.
How to recognize the passive voice
Many people don’t notice when they use the passive voice. Here’s a simple way to recognize it: If you insert “by Broncos” after the verb, and the sentence still makes sense, you’re using the passive voice.
When to use the passive voice
Don’t use the passive voice in a way that makes actions seem like they happen without anyone doing them.
You may occasionally need to use the passive voice to soften a message or make something easier to understand.
Rewording either of these sentences to use the active voice would complicate the sentence or pull focus away from its main point:
Forms issued by the Office of Information Technology include the OGE-450 and the OGE-278.
The agency is required to respond to requests within 20 working days.
Use plain language
Boise State’s websites are public-facing and for everyone. Therefore, the content they contain should be as straightforward as possible.
One of the best ways to make content clear and usable is to use plain language. When we use words people understand, our content is more findable, accessible, and inclusive. Fun fact: plain language is also THE LAW for all federal government websites.
When we use jargon in our writing, we risk losing users’ trust. Government, legal, business, and higher education jargon is often vague or unfamiliar to users and can lead to misinterpretation.
Another temptation that can hurt readability is figurative language: it often doesn’t say what you actually mean, and can make your content more difficult to understand. For example:
- Drive (you can only drive vehicles, not schemes or people)
- Drive out (unless it’s cattle)
- Going forward (unless you’re giving directions)
- One-stop-shop (we’re a university, not a big box store)
In most cases, you can avoid these figures of speech by describing what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.
If you’re struggling to use plain language, try writing conversationally. Picture your audience in front of you and write as if you were talking to them one-on-one, with the authority of someone who can actively help.
Don’t use formal language or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use buy instead of purchase, help instead of assist, about instead of approximately, and so on.
Plain language lists can help spot problem words and consider alternatives, but keep in mind that plain language is more than just a list of words to avoid—it’s a way of writing.
Words to avoid
- agenda (unless you’re talking about a meeting)
- collaborate (use working with)
- combating (use working against or fighting)
- commit or pledge (we need to be more specific — we’re either doing something or we’re not)
- countering (use answering or responding)
- deliver (pizzas, mail, and services are delivered — not abstract concepts like improvements or priorities)
- deploy (unless you’re talking about the military or software)
- dialogue (we speak to people)
- disincentivize or incentivize
- execute (use run or do)
- facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
- foster (unless it’s children)
- impact or impactful
- initiate (use start)
- innovative (use words that describe the positive outcome of the innovation)
- in order to (use to)
- key (unless it unlocks something, use important or omit)
- land (as a verb only use if you’re talking about aircraft)
- leverage (unless you use it in the financial sense)
- liaise (use collaborate, work with, or partner with)
- modify (use change instead)
- progress (what are you actually doing?)
- promote (unless you’re talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
- simple or simply (use straightforward, uncomplicated, or clear, or leave the descriptor out altogether)
- slimming down (processes don’t diet)
- strengthening (unless you’re referring to bridges or other structures)
- tackling (unless you’re referring to football or another contact sport)
- thought leader (refer to a person’s accomplishments)
- touchpoint (mention specific system components)
- transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
- user testing (use user research or usability testing)
- utilize (use use)
When to use legal and technical terms
Present complicated information clearly so it’s easier to understand. If you need to include legal terms or technical language, include a short, plain-language summary or define your terms up front.
It’s fine to use technical terms when they’re appropriate for the audience or the situation, but you need to explain what they mean on the first reference.
You can check the readability level in the Yoast SEO plugin on our WordPress theme. If the reading level isn’t a little lower than your intended audience, then revision may be necessary.