EPA Communications Stylebook: Writing Guide
Last revised 2009
On this page:
- Introduction - Writing Style in General
- What is the EPA Writing Style?
- Abbreviations, acronyms, ampersands, bylines, credits, capitalization, disclaimers, numbers, spelling - one word or two, and more.
- Punctuation Pointers
- Grammar Guides
- Structure and Style Recommendations
- How to Structure Communications
- More Elements of Style
- Process Suggestions
- The Substance of Style
Introduction - Writing Style in General
This section of the stylebook outlines EPA's writing style. Generally, writing style comprises grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, syntax and usage. Stylebooks can go beyond that, into narrative style, even identifying organizational and human values to be reflected in communication.
In our basic style, EPA employs the significant work that has been done for us and for millions of other readers and writers by the Associated Press (AP), one of the largest communication services in the world. In the great majority of cases regarding grammar and usage, EPA follows the AP Stylebook, which you can view online in HTML or PDF format.
Our rights agreement with AP strictly prohibits EPA staff from downloading hard copies or individual pages of our on-line AP Stylebook. It is a large volume with over 700 pages, and you can purchase hard copies from the AP on-line shop or at a local bookstore. Since it is a relatively low-cost item, the AP Stylebook can be obtained through the small purchase authority of most EPA offices. You are of course free to peruse the manual online; you simply cannot download or print the book. We hope that this much shorter and free EPA stylebook can act as a "cheat sheet" for you.
In our academic courses, many of us learned writing styles from such widely used manuals as Strunk and White, Turabian and the Modern Language Association. These are the manuals that taught us the style commonly called standard English.
Others of us were guided in academic and professional careers by respected styles such as those of the American Psychological Association, American Bar Association, American Nurses' Association and a number of others. Those styles convey useful ideas and are employed well beyond the immediate membership of their groups, but are not broadly oriented to the wide variety of public interests and audiences that EPA must reach.
A final point about style in general: It is not a restriction on creativity. The most creative organizations in the world have style manuals. Many of them run hundreds or thousands of pages. The most successful book publishers in New York, animation studios in California, and package designers in Chicago have style manuals. They are designed to help organizations communicate in a clear and consistent way. Staying on the road, after all, does not keep you from arriving at the destination.
What is the EPA Writing Style?
Short answer: Associated Press (AP)
Longer answer: Keep reading
This section of the EPA Stylebook will help you uphold the general and distinctive qualities that define EPA's writing style. At its core, EPA style is simply the AP Stylebook.
AP style is what the general public is accustomed to seeing because it is the official stylebook of the newspaper industry. As noted earlier, EPA has an online subscription to the AP book on our Intranet. AP updates its stylebook to accommodate changes in conventions and usage.
View the AP Stylebook online.
This section of the EPA stylebook covers basic issues of grammar, punctuation and usage. This is the core of our style and mostly dictates requirements and rules. Think of this section as the bricks and lumber to build your house. This might not be the actual house, but without good materials and the proper structure, your house will fall apart.
Style Notes to Remember
The following are requirements of basic punctuation, grammar and usage of EPA writing which modify, supplement, or in some cases reiterate AP style. They are important points that we want you to remember. These areas include:
- Gender bias
- Passive/active voice
- Plain language
- Regional designations
- Spelling - one word or two?
- Words and structure - fixing some common mistakes
- Writing for kids
Abbreviations - Always spell out "United States" when it appears as a noun. "Southwest" is one word; it is abbreviated "SW" like all other compass points. As an adjective, "U.S." is acceptable. State abbreviations: Abbreviation is only appropriate in long lists, addresses, and when used in conjunction with the name of a city, town, village or military base in that state. Per the AP Stylebook, use non-Postal Service abbreviations like "Ala.," "Ariz.," "Ga." and "N.M." in conjunction with the name of a city, town, village or military base. Eight states are not abbreviated in text: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah. Use the two-letter Postal Service abbreviations only with full addresses, including the ZIP code.
Acronyms - Acronyms are acceptable as long as they were spelled out the first time they appeared.
In addition, the acronym "EPA" is a proper noun; it should be used by itself without "the" in front. For example, a sentence should begin "EPA will ..." instead of "The EPA will ..."
Ampersands (&) - Use ampersands only when they are part of a formal name (e.g., C & O Railroad) or when space is at a premium.
Bylines and Staff Credits (see also later section: Self-aggrandizement ) - GPO printing and binding regulations state: "The printing of government employee bylines in government publications shall be confined to the authors of articles appearing therein, and to the photographers who have originated the pictures contained therein."
In this connection:
- Byline refers to any name listed for credits as opposed to employee names integral to the text itself.
- Author applies to an individual who has conceived of, created, or is responsible for a text or section thereof.
- Author cannot be extended to cover supervisors, managers, advisors, staff committee or workgroup members and other such contributors, who may, however, be listed under "acknowledgments."
You can acknowledge other non-contractor organizations or individuals representing them, although acknowledging an organization alone typically suffices. Contract numbers can be listed, but not the names of contractor staff members. Using the name of the contractor firm is discouraged and should only be used for a specific reason. EPA is solely and entirely responsible for the work of its contractors. Once published, all contractor work is officially ours.
A page for acknowledgements is permitted; as appropriate encouraged, but only acknowledgements - not thanks, not dedications, gratitude, nor congratulations. The work belongs to EPA and EPA does not use the resources of American taxpayers to publish thanks or congratulations to our employees for doing their work. Acknowledgements can and in some cases should indicate which EPA staff offices or staff members produced the work. Acknowledgements are especially helpful in indicating particular reliability of authors and their credentials and providing resources the audience may contact for supplemental information.
Capitalization - Do not capitalize terms such as waste management, disposal, pollution prevention, non-governmental organization, legislation, project, offices, endnote, and sector, and do not capitalize chemical names like lead, mercury, or dioxins. In titles and lists, capitalize only the first word, proper nouns, and other words that would normally be capitalized. Do not capitalize the first letter of each word or all letters.
Agency/agency - capitalized when the Agency refers specifically to EPA, as opposed to a generic organization.
Federal, local, native, natives, state, states, tribal, tribes - lowercase unless they begin a sentence or form part of an official title: Cherokee Indian Tribe. Lowercase when used alone and in plural form: U.S. states, the Sioux and Navajo tribes. Lowercase the adjectives tribal and native unless they are parts of a proper name: tribal art, Hopi tribal leaders, Ojibway Tribal Council, Virginia native. Note that Native Americans, American Indians, Indian Country and Alaskan Native Villages should be capitalized.
Internet - a proper noun; capitalize it.
Region, regional - capitalize it when referring to a specific EPA regional office: "EPA Region 10 is responsible for..." or "EPA Regions are responsible for...". Do not capitalize it if you are referring to a geographic region: "The New England region was hit with heavy snow..."
Section, article - not capitalized, even when referring to one part of a law or regulation: "OGC interprets section 1502(b) to mean..."
Title - capitalized when referring to a part of a law or regulation; not capitalized otherwise: "OGC interprets Title 41 to include..." but "The brochure's title should be revised."
Web - according to the AP Stylebook, capitalize web when it refers to the World Wide Web, as in "the Web" or "Web page." Note, however, that per the AP Stylebook website, webcam, webcast, and webmaster are single, lowercase words. (Also note which words should be one word, and which should be two words).
Disclaimers - Documents that include articles by non-EPA employees expressing their own opinions require the following disclaimer: The material in this document has been subject to Agency technical and policy review, and approved for publication as an EPA report. The views expressed by individual authors, however, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Draft documents require the following disclaimer: This text is a draft that has not been reviewed for technical accuracy or adherence to EPA policy; do not quote or cite
Documents that refer to particular companies, trade or service names, product names, or other commercial references require the following disclaimer: Mention of trade names, products, or services does not convey official EPA approval, endorsement, or recommendation.
Diversity - Diversity is an important issue that should be considered in the development of every communication.
Gender Bias - Use gender-neutral words. Consult sources like the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles or Rosalie Maggio's book The Nonsexist Word Finder. View Web-based guidance on plain language writing .
Numbers - Per the AP Stylebook, spell whole numbers below the number 10, but use figures for numbers 10 and above. Common exceptions to this rule include a 5-year-old girl, 3 percent, 6 cents; another common exception is that a number at the beginning of a sentence should be spelled: Twelve program offices and all 10 regional offices think OPA is a pain in the wazoo.
Passive/Active Voice - Use active voice as much as possible. Writing is much more lively and interesting to read in active voice. Passive sentences are often, although not always, written in past tense, and the actors are obscured. For example, "mistakes were made." By whom? Active sentences are strong, clear, simple and credible.
Passive: "A cleanup plan will be issued this summer."
Active: "EPA will issue a proposed cleanup plan this summer."
Plain Language - Along with all federal agencies and departments, EPA must use plain language in our communications with the general public and those specialized groups to which Agency communications are often directed. Plain language is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Plain language is defined by results-it is easy to read, understand, and use. Additional guidance is available from the General Services Administration's Language Network on the Internet at www.plainlanguage.gov. (See also below in Key Elements of Structure.)
Regional Designations - Most readers don't know what "Region 1," "Region 2," etc. mean, so explicitly list states or use regional descriptions if appropriate (e.g., "EPA New England"). For example, "Region 5 (IL, IN, MI, MN, Ohio, WI)." Also, use "EPA regional offices" instead of "EPA regions." Also, the EPA style is to use Arabic numerals when referring to a specific Region, e.g., "Region 5", rather than to use Roman numerals, e.g. "Region V".
Cleanup - The noun and adjective forms are "cleanup;" the verb form is "clean up." Do not use "clean-up."
"The cleanup will take six weeks."
"Workers will clean up the site in six weeks."
"The cleanup work will take six weeks."
Email - EPA follows the AP Stylebook, which as of early 2011 specifies email rather than e-mail.
Listserv - Again per the AP Stylebook, it's listserv, not listserve or list serve.
Online - One word, not hyphenated.
Stormwater - One word, not hyphenated.
Water body - Two words, not hyphenated.
Words that include "Web" - One word or two? It's "Web page," but per the AP Stylebook, it's webcam, webcast, website and webmaster (Also note which words should be capitalized).
Titles - For clarity, consistency, and to respect the needs of bibliographical databases, titles should be restricted to two levels: one main title followed, if required, by one sub-title. In references, the division between the main and subtitle is signified by a colon; on covers it is indicated by spacing down one-half line and shifting to a lighter weight (sometimes a smaller size) of the same typeface. For purposes of clarity and easy reference, one of the key words in the title should appear at the beginning or as near it as feasible. For this reason, use generic phrases like "Report to Congress" and "Guide to federal activities" in subtitles, not the main title.
Words and Structure - fixing some common misteaks and errores - (NOTE: The following are cited because they are among the most common, not because they are the only or the worst mistakes. These and other occasionally vexing use issues are also covered in the AP Stylebook.)
Affect/effect -"Affect" is normally a verb. "Effect" is normally a noun. For example:
"Acid rain affects trees."
"Acid rain's damaging effects include weakening trees."
The only use of "effect" as a verb is to mean "to cause" or "to bring about" as in "EPA will effect change through a new program." It is usually better to say accomplish, perform, produce, generate, make, etc.
Bad/badly -"Bad" pertains to a thing, including a condition or state of being (He is a bad man. He is bad. How bad is it? Sour milk tastes bad.)
"Badly" pertains to an action (He performed badly.)
When your fingers are too cold, they feel bad; but when they are numb, they feel badly.
Bay/bay - When bay follows a name of a particular bay the word "bay" is also capitalized. In continuing to refer to it specifically, even without the full name, do not capitalize it.
Galveston Bay was damaged by the hurricane, but restoration of the bay is continuing. No other bay was as badly damaged.
Contractions and pronouns and verbs, oh my.
Our - Hour - How're
Their - There - They're
Were - We're - Where
Your - You're
Compose/comprise -"Compose" means to assemble or constitute. "Comprise" means to encompass (specifically encompass that which is already assembled)
"The infielders, outfielders, pitchers and catchers compose the baseball team."
"The baseball team comprises infielders, outfielders, pitchers and catchers."
"The baseball team is composed of infielders, outfielders, pitchers and catchers."
Things compose groups and groups comprise things.
Dispose - To "dispose" means to arrange, incline, or make ready. In contrast, "to dispose of" means to get rid of something. For example:
"The on-scene coordinator is disposed to clean up the site now"
"The on-scene coordinator will dispose of the hazardous material at an approved landfill."
Improper use: "EPA will dispose the hazardous material."
Good/well - "Good" pertains to a thing, including a condition or state of being. ("He is a good man. He is good. How good is it? Candy tastes good.") "Well" pertains to an action. ("He performed well.")
When your fingers are warm, they feel good, but if they are sensitive, they feel well.
Figuratively/literally/virtually - "Figurative" means like, similar, resembling. "Literal" means exactly the same as stated. "Virtual" means approximating reality. Do not use literally unless you mean that a statement is exactly as you have said it. Example: It is literally impossible to say, "When I am here at the beach with you, I am literally in heaven," because you literally cannot be at the beach talking to someone if you have demised into eternity.
Impact -"Impact" as a verb is over-used. Use "affect" or "affected" instead. For example:
"The contamination will affect a large area" instead of "the contamination will impact a large area."
"The affected area ..." instead of "the impacted area ..."
May - (NOTE: Following is one of the most common misuses in EPA communications. Do not use it, no matter how often you see it used in other media, or even in some dictionaries.) "May" means permission or free choice. It may not be used in place of can, might, could, or would.
"I might catch the flu. I may get a flu shot."
Migrate - This is an intransitive verb; you do not migrate something; you just migrate. "Migrate" as a transitive verb is computer techno-talk. If you are using it in that context - only - you may do so.if you insist.
Example (correct): Geese migrate to Canada
Example (wrong): Grandmother will migrate the silverware to the buffet
Example (techno): The computer division will migrate the data to the buffer
That/this (those/these) - It is greatly preferable to use that to indicate something which has already been mentioned, and to use this to indicate something upcoming.not yet mentioned or introduced. That refers the audience back to something; which they have already heard and, so, say, basically, "Oh, yeah.that thing." This will tell the audience that something is yet to come, and they will say, basically, "Oooh, I better pay attention. Conventional wisdom says that this creates immediacy. If the audience expects something yet to come, when you are actually referring to something already past, immediacy is very possibly displaced by confusion.
Example: The injured need help. That is the reason for my volunteer work (Audience: "Ah, I understand.")
Example: The injured need help. This is the reason for my volunteer work (Audience: "What is? ")
When the antecedent of this is very close, using this is acceptable, but almost never as clear as that .
That/which - Be careful using "which" in place of "that." "Which" tells something about the subject that is not absolutely necessary:
"The project, which is six weeks overdue, is still with the contractor."
In contrast, "that" provides necessary definition or restriction:
"Let's review the project that is overdue." "Which" is always preceded by a comma; "that" never is
Waste - The term "waste" is inherently plural. Do not add an "s" unless you mean - and must specifically call attention to - different types of them. For instance: "hospital waste comprises various dangerous items," but, "solid and liquid wastes must be treated differently."
Writing for Kids - Anyone developing a site for kids, students and educators should contact the Environmental Education Web Workgroup (EEWW) to involve the EEWW in the development of the site. Anyone preparing environmental education materials (Web, print or multi-media) should obtain a copy of Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines for Excellence, published by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). NAAEE is a network of professionals and students from more than 50 countries around the world.
The executive summary of this NAAEE publication stresses the following points:
Fairness and Accuracy: Materials should be fair and accurate in describing environmental problems, issues and conditions and reflect the diversity of perspectives on them. The material should reflect sound theories and well-documented facts and present a balance of differing views. Diversity should be emphasized and learners encouraged to explore different perspectives.
Depth: Materials should foster awareness of the natural and built environments, an understanding of environmental concepts, conditions and issues, and an awareness of the feelings, values, attitudes and perceptions at the heart of environmental issues, as appropriate for different developmental levels.
Emphasis on Skills Building: The materials should build lifelong critical thinking and problem solving skills that enable learners to address and prevent environmental problems.
Action Orientation: The materials should promote civic responsibility, encouraging learners to use their knowledge, personal skills, and assessments of environmental issues as a basis for environmental problem solving and action.
Instructional Soundness: Rely on instructional techniques that create an effective learning environment. Offer different ways of learning, including interdisciplinary techniques, and create activities that allow learners to build from previous knowledge. Connect the learners to their own everyday life experiences.
Usability: The materials should be well designed and easy to use, clearly and engagingly written, adaptable for a range of situations, have life spans extending beyond one use or year, and should be accompanied by support information for the instructor.
The AP Stylebook includes an entire chapter devoted to punctuation. We encourage you to read and learn this material. A few special notes follow about some of the trickier punctuation matters relating to:
- Quotation marks
Use of apostrophe: Examples: PCBs (to show plural, do not use the possessive apostrophe), EPA's policy (to show that it is EPA's policy).
Know the definition of the serial comma. It is the comma used immediately before a conjunction in a series of three or more items. The phrase rain gardens, porous pavements, and green roofs is written with the serial comma while the phrase rain gardens, porous pavements and green roofs is written without it. Lawsuits have been filed over interpretations of documents based on the "missing" comma before the and, so this is not a minor detail.
The AP Stylebook recommends against the use of the serial comma, but includes some exceptions, such as: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. Put a comma before the final conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. Also, use a comma before the final conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.
Use exclamation marks sparingly!! They are used extensively in comic books!! That tells you something right there!! In any case, if you want your audience to be excited and enthused, you will need to do it with words and ideas, not punctuation marks!!
Learn about hyphens. Commas and hyphens are typically the most difficult punctuation concepts for people to understand. The purpose of the hyphen is to help your reader avoid ambiguity. If two words together describe one word and they come before the noun they are describing, the words are usually hyphenated. It helps the reader understand more quickly that the two words together describe the next word. Example: The free-form sculpture was beautiful. Without the hyphen, the reader might stumble while reading. Is it a free sculpture? What's a form sculpture? If you don't like hyphens, you can always rewrite your sentence. When adjectives come after nouns, hyphens are unnecessary. Example: The sculpture was free form and beautiful.
Periods are followed by one space, not two. AP style dictates one space after closing periods, except with initials, such as in C.S. Lewis. This is because desktop publishing programs automatically adjust for spacing after a period; however, typewriters and many word processing programs do not. Because most of us use computers and because we should be environmentally-friendly and not waste the space, EPA style is to use one space, not two, after closing periods.
Follow standard punctuation rules for quotation marks. Use quotation marks when quoting short remarks by other people or brief passages in publications. Remember to use appropriate punctuation. In dialogue, each person's words are placed in a separate paragraph, with quotation marks at the beginning and end of each person's speech. Periods and commas go inside quotation marks. Dashes, semicolons, question marks and exclamation points go inside quotation marks when they apply to the quoted material. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence. Italics are sometimes used to highlight examples or to provide emphasis, although it is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even preferable, to use quotation marks to highlight examples. Single quotation marks are used for quotes within quotations.
Use the following rules to help you understand semicolons.
- Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses when the second clause restates the first or when the two clauses are equal in emphasis. Example: EPA scores vehicles according to fuel consumption and their environmental impacts; SmartWay-certified vehicles are the best environmental performers.
- Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, moreover, furthermore, thus, meanwhile, nonetheless, otherwise) or a transition (in fact, for example, that is, for instance, in addition, in other words, on the other hand, even so). Example: Going "green" now seems to be all over the news; in fact, a quick Google news search pulls up 95,000 results.
- Use a semicolon to join elements of a series when each item in the series includes commas. Example: Recent sites of the Olympic Games include Beijing, China; Athens, Greece; Salt Lake City, Utah; Sydney, Australia; and Nagano, Japan.
Use proper punctuation for bulleted sections. AP uses dashes, not bullets, for lists in news stories that follow a colon. EPA follows the AP rule after the dash or bullet: capitalize the first letter and use periods at the end of each section. Example: You will need to present the following information:
- Your driver's license.
- Birth certificate.
AP does not cover vertical lists that complete a sentence begun in an introductory element and that consist of phrases or sentences with internal punctuation. In this instance, we follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which states that in these instances, "semicolons may be used between the items, and a period should follow the final item. Each item begins with a lowercase letter. A conjunction (and or or) before the final item is optional."
Example: Children may be more vulnerable to environmental exposures than adults because:
- their bodily systems are still developing;
- they eat more, drink more, and breathe more in proportion to their body size; and
- their behavior can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.
Here are just a few of the more common errors with some thoughts about how to avoid them.
Agreement (pronoun/antecedent; subject/verb). Agreement in grammar means that singular matches singular, plural matches plural. Misuses in this connection often occur when there is some lack of clarity about whether a certain grouping of many things constitutes a single, collective idea. For example:
Pronoun/antecedent - Incorrect: If one is nervous, they should relax.
Correct: If one is nervous, he should relax.
Subject/verb - Incorrect: Linens are the department on the third floor, behind the escalator.
Subject/verb - Correct: Linens are the only things that I am washing today.
Combining he or she as a single phrase is clunky and awkward. If possible, make your subject plural. Learn when to use you and I versus you and me. If between is involved, it is between you and me. A simple rule to follow is I is used in the subject whereas me is used in the predicate, that is, after the verb. Examples: You and I will attend the meeting. She is going with you and me to the meeting.
Conjunction and preposition placement (from beginning to end). Conjunctions are words that connect distinct, but related words and phrases. They include: albeit, also, and, because, but, for, consequently, however, moreover, nevertheless, or, therefore. They can connect words as comparative or as contrasting. Traditional grammar does not permit their use to begin sentences based on the idea that, as connectors, the words being connected should do so within the same sentence. EPA style agrees with the traditional idea, but accepts the idea that, in some cases, it might be effective and useful communication to permit their use as opening words in sentences.
NOTE: Certain words that are most often used as conjunctions are simply not conjunctions in other contexts. For example:
- I will go to the grocery; however, I might stop at the laundry first. (conjunction)
- However large the amount, my salary is never large enough. (adjective)
Prepositions are words which indicate (conceptual or physical) place or position. They include about, around, above, below, here, in, near, there and many others. Traditional grammar does not permit their use to end sentences; however, ending sentences with prepositions is so common in colloquial usage that it can be accepted in writing occasionally. It might seem that a preposition is an appropriate word to end a sentence only because the sentence was not carefully constructed in the first place. If the dilemma seems to present itself, try - very hard - to write the sentence in strict formal English. You probably will find that formal use is just as easy to read and easier to understand.
Colloquial - That is not a rule that I am aware of.
Formal - I am not aware of that rule.
Formal - That is not a rule of which I am aware.
Colloquial - Cairo is not a city that I have ever traveled to.
Formal - I have never traveled to Cairo.
Formal - Cairo is not a city to which I have ever traveled.
Something of an outlier - occasionally in English usage, we find prepositions in a purely colloquial form to emphasize certain verbs. It is debatable whether such uses are truly prepositions and/or whether they are formal English in their use. Examples: chew up, call out, fall down, figure out. Seldom would the meaning of the verb be different without the up, the out, the down. The question is as much about the word being necessary as it is about it being correct. In autumn, the leaves fall down. Indeed. Where else? While we are on the subject, exactly how high does your food go, when you chew it.up?
Elliptical/incomplete sentences: Elliptical sentences are sentences which lack a core element (subject, predicate, object), but are entirely understandable from context. They are grammatically incorrect but can be highly effective in the right context.
Split infinitives. (i.e. Separating the infinitive word to from a verb with which it is associated) Example: "To define clearly" versus "To clearly define." EPA writing style does not consider this a No-No, but it is a Seldom-Seldom. Like sentence-ending prepositions, split infinitives are not so bad themselves, but often indicate a poorly constructed thought or sentence. If the splitter-words give the main verb a significantly higher meaning or emphasis, it is a good use. A worst case example: "We must strive to ably and well, within the powers of our highest resources always and effectively, as we are enlightened by wisdom, promote better writing."
Structure and Style Recommendations
This next section includes strong recommendations for EPA writers to follow.
Probably the most important quality in any writing is clarity. A few kinds of writing, fiction and some philosophy, intentionally place more burden on the audience to ponder the meaning; more likely in those cases, several levels of meaning. Seldom would that approach serve EPA. For most of our writing, clarity is paramount.
The notes in the earlier section about strategic planning have much to do with clarity. Strategic planning produces that most important ingredient in clear writing - it makes intent and message clear to the writer and ultimately to the reader.
Several structural points are key to clarity in writing and can be named as separate elements, but often cannot be identified separately in an actual finished communication product. Structure and style, themselves, are distinct, but related.
Key elements of structure are:
- Consistency, coherence.
- Direction, integration.
- Clarity, plain language.
There are many ways to build those elements into the communication product.
Be consistent. From small details to big ideas, strive for consistency. Use the same spelling, punctuation and capitalization rules throughout a product. Example: Using ENERGY STAR in some places and Energy Star in others is confusing to the reader. Write from the same voice and person, the one doing the speaking, the audience being addressed. Above all, stick to the point. You know how you have heard someone say, "But I digress." Well, don't.
Use parallel construction. You want your subject and verb to agree. Example: One tree is blowing in the wind. Two trees are blowing in the wind. Easy enough? This gets more complicated if you can't determine the subject. Example: Is either of the storm drains clearly marked? or Are either of the storm drains clearly marked? Is the subject either or storm drains? If you selected either, you are correct, and the correct verb is is. If you think your audience might believe you are mistaken, rewrite the sentence altogether to avoid the problem.
If you are writing complex sentences, ensure parallelism in each of your clauses. Example: Not Parallel: The production manager wrote his report quickly, accurately and was thorough. Parallel: The production manager wrote his report quickly, accurately and thoroughly.
Headlines or titles should reflect your publication's topic and draw in potential readers. The physical appearance of headlines and titles allow the reader to sequence the ideas that are being presented. Sub-headlines and section titles present a skeleton that reveals the structure of the communication. A main headline or title should set the main idea, so the subheads and section titles should follow. A movie script has a structure. Its sequence and scene headings are not physically viewed by the audience, often not actually typed by the writer, but if they were to be read, they should reveal a coherent structure.
Write tight. Vary your sentence length, but aim for short sentences. If you can't avoid a long sentence, insert much shorter ones before and after the long sentence. Your primary job as a writer is to ensure that your reader understands your message. To some extent, the sheer discipline of trying to write short sentences will help you make them concise and succinct. There is nothing inherently confusing about a compound or complex sentence, but if a thought or thought sequence can be expressed in simple sentences, it is easier to follow.
Write in plain language. Many of the recommendations in this section are integral to writing in plain language, as required by a Presidential mandate in 1998. Plain language - in plain terms - is easy to read, understand and use.
No matter what the many applications and implications of plain language are for a particular product, do not forget the point at the beginning of this section - it is almost impossible to clearly communicate a muddled thought. Create a strategic plan. Know what you mean first.audience is likely to follow.
The above elements contribute to structure, but.
How to Structure Communications
There is no one-and-only structure to a communication. Once you have your direction and key points, the work can be structured in a variety of ways. Some of the most common examples are detailed here. In most cases, the structure that serves EPA best is called the hierarchy of interest. It begins with what is commonly called the lead (in journalism), the key selling point (in marketing) or, the main theme (in school).
That lead/selling point/main theme is the idea of greatest interest to the audience. Begin with it and expand on it. Do not just work it in somewhere. The people in your audience will want to know, first of all, why this communication benefits them. It is in your interest to tell them up-front why your material benefits them, why they should keep reading or listening or watching. Follow that pattern.explain to them the hierarchy of important points. Use subheadings liberally to help readers scan through your main points.
The hierarchy is not a strict top-down rating, but is based essentially on structuring the key points that the audience will want or need to take an action or make a decision.
Generally, at the end, you summarize the points (summarize is a sophisticated way of saying you repeat yourself) leading to.? Well, where exactly were you trying to lead them? To a decision? An action? What did your strategic plan contemplate?
In journalism, you might not have a complete summary, and you probably are not trying to get to a very specific end-point. Your goal is probably to transfer information on a topic of importance in such a way that your audience fully understands it. You might simply be saying (in effect), "That is where things stand, so far." The end-point in marketing is more definite and more action oriented.
There are other ways to structure communication. Generally, they do not work as well. They are the: chronological/historical, dramatic and logical.
Chronological structure was an ideal way to teach and learn writing in school. It makes sense. It is easy to follow. It structures an entire story from start to finish. It does not, however, usually serve the interests of busy people in the modern world who want to know immediately what they need to know and why they should know it. On the other hand, for a reader who truly must know every detail about a subject, all with nearly equal importance historical structure can work particularly if knowing the sequence of events is the crucial element.
Dramatic structure does not make a story dramatic. It has certainly been demonstrated beyond doubt to be the best way to structure fiction and engage the emotions. It usually begins with a factual setting and builds gradually to a (dramatic) climax. Somewhat self-evidently, it does not serve the general purposes of writing for EPA. It would be great if we could reach our audiences like the many powerful dramas - movies, novels, TV shows - that have involved EPA over the years, but other than the occasional human interest story, it is seldom a viable format for us.
Logical structure means logical throughout. In other words, you begin with a premise or set of premises and construct an argument that leads to a conclusion. If your audience cares enough to follow it, or needs to convey the argument to others, it is a useful structure. Rhetorical structure is a form of logic. It poses questions and then answers them. Questions are sequenced logically to lead to a summary point. It is the underlying communication structure in our legal system, especially courtroom procedure. All communication should be logical in the sense that one point naturally follows from another, but logical structure is a more formal approach. Even in this case, the lead-into-the-lead is to tell the readers why they this matters to them.
Style (as the word is used here in a more limited sense) is complementary to structure. Tone is perhaps the single most dominant characteristic of style.
Tone is difficult to define objectively, largely because it is not objective; it is subjective. Tone is measured by how the reader or listener judges or feels about the communicator and the content. That derives partly from how the communicator meant the audience to judge or feel. If it turns out wrong, the tone was probably improperly written or conveyed. The tone must be appropriate to the content; otherwise it is, almost by definition, confusing. Daily life is full of examples of tone not matching message. Saying good morning in a snarling gruff tone is essentially confusing and raises the question, "What did he mean by that?" Among the somewhat objectively definable techniques that help create the correct tone are:
Use positive statements wherever possible. For example: Do not close the valve versus Leave the valve open. Positive statements are easier to understand. When your eyes scan across Do not, your mind instantly backs up and pauses, Wait, what am I NOT supposed to do? Oh yeah - don't close the valve. It is clearer, but, just as a matter of human nature, positive statements convey a tone to which people respond more.well, more positively.
Use active voice. Active voice is much more interesting to read than passive voice, and the actor is less likely to be left out. Example: The Anacostia River was cleaned up. Instead, write: Office of Water volunteers cleaned up the Anacostia. If you want to motivate people to take an action, it makes sense that the active voice is more.well, more actionable.
Write in second person where possible. It is the friendliest of tones, most interactive and easiest for your audience to read and understand. Example: Turn off the water when you brush your teeth. Second person is usually, but not always, appropriate. Press releases and technical documents are usually written in third person. Topics which might involve strong negative reactions, which might be too personal, are better written in third person. Examples are descriptions of dire health effects or direct warnings of criminal enforcement actions.
More Elements of Style
There are other elements of style that largely stand alone as individual aspects of good communication to practice, or in some cases avoid.
Borrowed ideas, borrowed style. This is not plagiarism, but is akin to it. Certain styles or modes - usually popularized via mass media, celebrities or particularly engaging television commercials - have a cache that would seem to "work" for some other organization or outlet. Those popular approaches probably are effective because they display some degree of creativity. Now that someone has thought of it and done it, whatever other qualities it has, it is no longer creative. To that degree it is unlikely to work. Even if "borrowed" despite that fact, there is no particular reason to think that it will work for a different organization anyway.
A specific application of the borrowed idea is creating communications that mimic some popular advertising campaign or approach. This is problematic in three ways. First, there is nothing really creative about copying, no matter how well it might be done. Second, the mere fact that a commercial is popular does not mean that it is selling. Advertising is full of campaigns that won awards for their artistry while the client did not see an increase in sales. If you can generate an action or a decision by being entertaining, do it; if not, do not. Third, there is simply no good reason to believe that an approach which works for one organization will work for another, especially if its appeal is uniqueness. Trying to be like someone else is the opposite of unique.
No cliches. No jargon. No hip. (Exception: If you are using those constructions humorously, they are alright; just make sure that the humor is intentional and effective.) The biggest problem with explaining this category of word formulas that masquerade as ideas is that it is an almost infinitely large topic.
Clich is possibly the least offensive of these devices; it has, as the clich goes, stood the test of time. Some are useful, but an impulse to use one should be met with at least an attempt to create something new instead.
Hip (the latest thing, cool-talk, etc) cannot possibly be good mass communication as a general practice. If an expression or speech pattern is meaningful to a large segment of the population, it is, by definition, not hip. The very point of being hip is to be in front of, or apart from, the pack, not with it. In turn, trying to be hip, and failing to do so, invites - and invariably receives - ridicule. Ridicule is close to the perception of dishonesty as the least desirable outcome for a communication.
Jargon includes techno-talk, shop-talk and random, stylized forms of bad grammar. Maybe the worst is jargon compounded with pretentiousness. The idea behind most jargon is that it is a code through which one communicates with the secret clan of people who "talk that way." At best, this is a dubious proposition, but, even if true, it is no more effective than plain language because people "talk that way" too.
Repetition/redundancy. They are not the same thing. Redundancy is unnecessary repetition. In journalism, most repetition is considered redundant. Outside that arena, repetition, in itself, is an effective communication tool in teaching and a cornerstone of effective marketing and salesmanship. (See below: Bias For Action).
Self-aggrandizement. Always wrong, and in some cases such activity is against the law. It is not an easily enforceable law, but the federal government is prohibited by statute from using appropriated funds to communicate in the self-interest of an Agency, its officials or the aggrandizement of its budget. Communication must be for the public interest. That might be difficult to define, but not difficult to know the obvious opposite. A leading example is acknowledgements in publications (see earlier section on this topic).
It can be useful to tell an audience, as a statement of fact, which offices (occasionally which individual staff) prepared a document. It is inappropriate to congratulate, dedicate or thank. EPA is publishing its work. We have no reason to thank or congratulate ourselves for doing our work. We should, as warranted, identify those who can provide information about the subject or take direct responsibility for the contents of a communication. Unpaid consultants or reviewers may be acknowledged by name or affiliation. Contractors should not be acknowledged as individuals but, as appropriate, cited on a title page with a contract identification number; the firm may be named, but it is not necessary to do so.
Reports seem especially susceptible in this area. Reports should report fully, not just accomplishments and achievements to the exclusion of mistakes and failures. Along with being self-aggrandizing, a report which covers only the positive aspects of our work is being dishonest merely by calling itself a report. It is not a report; it is a promotional piece.
Producing reports, as fully-designed, elaborate publications, is not necessary. If the public should be informed of work progress, a report can almost always be copied or printed in one color and posted on a Web page without elaborate design. If a publication or video is to present success stories, as examples of work that can be profitably emulated by others, the success should be an activity which EPA helped, not did. Outside organizations, by definition, cannot learn how to be a federal agency. Success stories in themselves are good communication. We can legitimately serve the information transfer function about them because we have unique access to them.
Simple can be complicated. The fact that someone is new to a topic implies the need for a basic explanation of the topic. It does not mean that every audience of beginners wants only the beginner lesson. It is the nature of our work at EPA that everyday citizens from every part of our society get involved in our work. To assume that the newcomer does not want a lot of information can be varying parts of wrong, condescending and unproductive.
Know your audience. Know what they want and need. People who have just learned of an imminent lethal environmental threat to their community almost certainly do not merely want to skim the highlights of the matter. Significant environmental actions of the last few decades, which transformed our environment and our view of it, were led by "ordinary" citizens who became experts. Do not shortchange our potential community leaders with, "They are not interested in all that. They just want a nice simple explanation." A lot of information does not mean complex, does not mean technical. Simple, yes; meager, no.
Subjunctive The subjunctive (the verb mode that expresses possibility, wish, hope, choice.can, could, may, might, should, would) has its place, but like all communication must mean something that actually means something. To say, without elaboration or definition,"This chemical can cause cancer" is at best useless (i.e. not actionable) information; at worst a scare tactic. If it can cause cancer, the reader must be told the circumstances, or the probability under which that statement is true. If we say "EPA might enforce these regulations" the audience must know if we might not. It must not be used to create an appearance that the Agency is providing information, when it is merely providing speculation.
Several suggestions and helpful hints to help you avoid mistakes frequently corrected during product review:
Brainstorm, outline and consider your audience. Start with a brainstorming session where you outline your main message and supporting ideas. Consider your medium. If it is a fact sheet, it should be one page in length. Consider your audience. Will humor or a story work for your audience? If so, we encourage humor and creativity as long as it could not be deemed offensive or inappropriate.
Use your resources. As you are creating your concept, remember to involve your product review officer. Your program reviewers are great resources and should be involved from the concept stage of development. They help communicate your ideas to the reviewers in the Office of Public Affairs as you develop your product. View a list of product review officers.
Include your main message in paragraph one. Lead with a clear purpose statement that includes your intended audience. Readers should know up-front what exactly you want them to learn in your publication. In a press release, this is called the lead. Journalists try to include the "who, what, when, where, and how" of the situation in the first sentence of a press release or news story. Example: Before heading outside in a heat wave, you can check the air quality index where you live.
Always spell-check and proofread for typographical errors. Regrettably, spell-check does not catch everything. Examples: it does not know the difference between there/their/they're, affect/effect, your/you're, our/are, then/than, its/it's, and loose/lose. That's why it is critical to proofread your work, and ask others to proofread your work. If there are errors you want to avoid, you can replace them in Microsoft's autocorrect feature, and save yourself embarrassing moments. In Word, access the Tools menu and then click and complete: AutoCorrect Options, Replace, With, Add, and Ok.
Edit, edit, edit. Double-check the spelling of names, organizations, and acronyms. Double-check your references, footnotes, and sources. Ask at least one other person to edit your work. In your final review, look for unnecessary words and delete them. As long as you're spell-checking, use the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale in Microsoft Word. Access the Tools menu and then click on: Spelling and Grammar; in the Grammar tab, check Show Readability Statistics. After you complete a spell-check, the last screen will give you the readability statistics, including the grade level. This readability scale bases the grade level of the writing on the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word.
Use the Associated Press Stylebook as your primary reference. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (Basic Books, New York, NY, 2007) is EPA's standard style guide.
Use Webster's Dictionary as your spelling reference. Webster's is EPA's official spelling guide, and the first spelling is preferred (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Mass., 2003).
The Substance of Style
Any EPA product must communicate something about the Agency, as a whole - something on the "list" of our essential qualities. At the top of such a list should be these:
Accuracy/honesty/openness. In clich terms, it "goes without saying" that EPA communications must be honest, but, in fact, it does not go without saying; it should be, and is, stated explicitly: Honesty is the primary constituent and quality that must be in, and the basis of, all EPA communications. Some people might think of style merely as a synonym for appearance. In communications, style is the overall recognizable form of that which is being presented. Our communication style is honesty. It should conform to the traditional concept of the "courtroom" standard - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
EPA has a special and difficult obligation to do more than just mean well and be straight with people. In work that is grounded in law and science, being right on the facts, is crucial. In public communication getting it right means getting it so that the audience gets it right. If writing for the public is wrapped in perfectly accurate legalism or high technology most of the audience will not get it right, because they will not get it at all. This does not mean walking a fine line between two difficult areas; it means eliminating the difficulty. As challenges to communicators go, that is about as tough as it gets, and we are expected to meet that challenge
Two process steps in achieving accuracy - coordination and verification - are also significant as values in themselves. The breadth of EPA work across geography, population and subject matter can make it difficult to know that our communications are consistent with one another. Even the most sincere effort to be truthful and accurate can appear to contradict or conflict with a communication from some other part of the Agency. The appearance of contradiction, in itself, is a failure to communicate as well as possible. There are methods and systems to facilitate that necessary coordination - the Communications Product Review process is one. We must use them fully to ensure that we not only avoid inaccuracy, but avoid even the appearance of it.
We should think of verification in two ways. First, we must always verify the accuracy of our messages as we write. Second we should verify to the audience what we write. Citing sources, detailing research, explaining the basis for our statements, attests to our openness and honesty, but it has some important practical aspects, too. EPA is often challenged in the public forum. It is gratifying that the public trusts us, but they should not be tested to do so. They should know how and why we are equipped to make the statements that we do. In turn, that enables each person in the audience to become a confident communicator of that message.
Action. Most of the communications that are addressed in this stylebook should reflect the public nature of our work. Yes, we are accountable to the public, but unlike many other agencies, we are obliged to go beyond just being accountable; we must involve the public directly in our work. Most citizens will never be directly involved in the work of most federal agencies to help launch a missile, conduct foreign trade negotiations or capture a smuggler, but for tens-of-millions protecting the environment is a daily activity. Using household chemicals safely, using fuel efficiently, recycling, knowing how ensure drinking water purity, in a thousand ways citizens are our partners in this work.
Our communications must have a bias for action to involve people at the level that they desire and that we need. Sometimes just giving information is sufficient, but conveying it a way that it easily can and will be used should be the rule. More often, the goal should be action and public involvement. That principle in an earlier section about telling the audience how and why a communication will benefit them.this is mainly what that means.
Inclusiveness. This is largely the blending of the two points immediately preceding. We must convey information that everybody understands. We must convey information that everybody can use. Earlier we said to avoid clich s, but this is a good one - democracy in action. There are no people or groups who are special in the scope of our work. In communications terms we should target specific audiences, but we must target the universe of them. That is not just a thought about democracy; it is an action item for our Agency.