Writing toolkit

Your aim should be to connect with your audience and communicate your message to them as simply and clearly as you can. If someone can read your message once and understand it, it saves time and reduces confusion and mistakes.

Use clear and simple language

Words are your tools, so it’s important to choose them carefully. Your ideas can be complex and sophisticated, but your writing should express them simply.

Clearly written messages also show respect and consideration for your audience, which helps build better relationships. The following writing tools will help you do that.

Be reader-friendly

Connect with your audience directly by using words like ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘I’, if that’s an appropriate tone for your message. Think of your written words as the start of a conversation.

Match your level of technical language to your audience. Academic staff will understand the meaning of some phrases and terms about curriculum or assessments, but students may not. If you have to use bureaucratic, technical or legal terms, include a definition or explanation.

Be clear

Using plain and clear language helps your audience read, understand and use the information you are giving them.

TIP

Where possible, choose a simple word or phrase over a complex one.

Writing in short, simple words doesn’t mean you are ‘dumbing down’ the message. It means you are communicating your important and complex ideas as clearly and effectively as possible.

The principles of plain language include:

  • structuring your message logically
  • using headings, subheadings, lists and tables to help readers navigate through your material
  • writing short, uncomplicated sentences and leaving out anything that isn’t necessary for your message
  • choosing common, everyday words rather than jargon or technical terms
  • only using acronyms when absolutely necessary and always defining them the first time they appear
  • using white space, typography that is easy to read and visual tools.
ComplexSimple ComplexSimple
a large number of many   in order that for, so
advantageous helpful   in regard to about
ameliorate improve   in the event that if
commence begin, start   inception start
commensurate equal   leverage use
consolidate combine, join, merge   optimise perfect
constitutes is, forms, makes up   pertaining to about, of, on
construct build   prescribed required
deleterious harmful   proficiencies skills
disseminate issue, send   proximity near
due to the fact that because   regarding about
endeavour try   subsequently after or later
erroneous wrong   successfully complete complete, pass
expeditious fast   sufficient enough
facilitate ease, help   utilise use
implement carry out   was of the opinion that thought
in lieu of instead   with the exception of except for

Be inclusive

Using inclusive language shows courtesy and respect for diversity. Before identifying particular characteristics about people when you write, ask whether it is necessary and relevant to the discussion.

TIP

Avoid gendered pronouns: Avoid writing his/her, it is now acceptable to use ‘their’ even if the subject of your sentence is singular.

If it is necessary, then use words that emphasise people’s humanity, rather than focusing on their gender, race, cultural background, religion, age, sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability or appearance.

people with disabilities
disabled people
first name or given name
Christian name
English as an additional language (EAL) or languages other than English (LOTE)
non-English speaking background (NESB)
domestic partner
husband or wife
police officer
policeman
Write your answers in the booklet supplied.
The student should write his/her answers in the booklet supplied.

Use an active voice

Using the active voice means being clear about who (the ‘actor’) is doing what (the ‘action’). For example, ‘The ball was kicked’ is passive, as we don’t know who kicked the ball. ‘The teacher kicked the ball’ is active.

Writing in the active voice gives the reader more information, and it also adds accountability to your message.

Active: We made mistakes.
Passive: Mistakes were made.
Active: FedUni residential students raised $500 towards a very worthy cause.
Passive: $500 was raised towards a very worthy cause.

When the action is more important than the actor, the passive voice is appropriate. For example, ‘The new library will be opened in January’, is passive, but the important message is that the library will be opened, not who is opening it.

Be concise

Get straight to the point. Often your first draft will wander around the main idea, especially at the start. It can be very helpful to ask yourself where the first key point is, and then take out everything before that.

Cover one theme per paragraph and one key idea per sentence. Cut out unnecessary words or sentences. Aim for two to four sentences in each paragraph and sentences with an average of 15 words or fewer. The less words you use, the more likely it is that your message will be read and understood.

Often your first draft will be the longest, because you are concentrating on getting all your ideas down.

Once you have done the first draft, look for ways to make it shorter and simpler.

TIP

Use Word's tools: Check the average sentence length and readability of your Microsoft Word or Outlook document using the spelling and grammar check tool. But remember that this tool is just a guide – you are the best person to judge if you need to rework your writing.

Get the tone right

Choose an appropriate tone for the message.

A newsletter might use contractions (you’re, let’s, we’ve), slang and funny pictures to make it friendly and chatty. That’s perfectly fine, as it tailors the way you write to the way you want the reader to feel: included, energised, excited and happy.

A letter about fees would (and should) be more formal, but that doesn’t mean discarding the principles of plain language. It just means carefully matching the tone to the situation. You can still address the reader directly as ‘you’, rather than ‘the student’ or ‘the applicant’.

It’s important to maintain a constructive and non-judgemental tone. Rather than tell someone what not to do, reframe the message to tell them what they should or can do.

Even if you are writing about a negative situation, like a student who has failed a course, it’s important to include information about positive steps that they can take or the support services that are available for them.

TIP

Check your voice: Read it out loud and if you find yourself thinking, ‘I wouldn’t say it like that’, then don’t write it like that.

Writing difficult messages

It can be very hard to write messages that you know will be difficult or upsetting for people to receive, like telling a student that they have failed a course or have overdue fees.

In these situations, you might find yourself writing in a more official and impersonal tone than usual. This creates a distance between you and the message you have to craft, which makes it easier to write.

A more effective approach is to think about how you want the reader to feel. If your message is dull, condescending or uncaring, they are less likely to read it carefully and take in the important information.

If you write with the aim of making the reader feel encouraged and supported, you are more likely to get a positive outcome. It’s harder, but it’s worth it.