Content Principles

  • Start with user needs.

    • Write in a way that suits the situation. Ask yourself: Who is going to read this?

    • What do they need to know? How might they be feeling?

    • Help people find the information they need quickly and easily. Guide them through the process.

  • Do the hard work to make it simple.

    • Use plain language and simple sentences.

    • Choose clarity over cleverness.

  • Write for everyone.

    • Respect the complexity of our users' experiences.

    • Be willing to be surprised about who's reading your work.

  • Build trust.

    • Talk like a person.

    • Tell the truth.

  • Use positive language and concrete examples.

    • Start small and iterate.

    • Make sure your content works for users. Don't be afraid to scrap what's there and start over.

    • Write a draft, test it out, gather feedback, and keep refining.

Address the user

Address the user as you whenever possible. For example:

If you're creating content for multiple users—such as students and their parents—address the primary user as you and refer to secondary users by their roles or titles.

Avoid duplication

If something is written once and links to relevant information easily and well, people are more likely to trust the content. Duplicate content produces poor search results, confuses the user, and damages the credibility of our websites.

If users can find two similar pieces of content on a subject, they might end up calling a helpline or sending an email to the first address they find because they aren't sure they have the right information.

There are thousands of IUP web pages. Collectively, they host 100,000+ pieces of content. What are you writing about? What are other offices publishing? Are users across the campus and state seeing a coherent view?

Before you publish something, check to see if the user need you're trying to address has not already been covered:

  • Search for the content using a popular search engine like Google or Bing. This is how most users will start, too. If content is already easy to find, duplicating it can lead us to compete with ourselves for search results.

  • Think authoritatively: What office or department controls the thing you're writing about? What information have they produced already?

  • Start significant projects with a content audit. Identify how any existing information is used and whether it will be helpful to your users in its current state. If it isn't, what must change for it to help you address your users' needs? Focus your work on those changes.

Be concise

To keep content understandable, concise, and relevant, it should be:

  • Specific

  • Informative

  • Clear and concise

  • Brisk but not terse

  • Incisive (friendliness can lead to a lack of precision and unnecessary words) but human (not something generated by a faceless machine)

  • Serious but not pompous or emotionless—adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like spin

You should

  • Use contractions (such as can't and won't)

  • Not let caveats dictate unwieldy grammar (for example, say You can rather than You may be able to)

  • Use the language people are using

  • Use Google Trends to check for common search terms

  • Use short sentences

  • Check sentences with more than 25 words to see if you can split them for clarity

Words ending in -ion and -ment tend to make sentences longer and more complicated than necessary. Avoid turning verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs—a common sign of jargon at work.

Keep sentences short and sweet

Craft sentences at 25 words or fewer, whenever possible. If a sentence has fewer than 14 words, readers understand 90 percent of content. At 25 words, sentences are markedly more difficult to comprehend.

We also recommend varying sentence length. Switching things up helps you keep readers interested. This tactic will also give you better control of your content's tone—a text with only short sentences can unintentionally sound terse. The occasional longer sentence adds a bit of narrative interest (and can help a piece of writing sound friendlier, too).

Here's an example of how you might transform a too-long sentence into something more manageable.

Instead of:

Due to privacy and logistical considerations, passes cannot be replaced if lost or stolen; a new Paper Voucher must be accessed by going to the website and completing the same activities to obtain a new Paper Voucher.


Unfortunately, we can't replace lost or stolen passes. Get a new pass by visiting and signing up again.

Use plain language

IUP websites and other content are for everyone. 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.

When we use jargon in our writing, we risk losing users' trust. Educational and legal jargon are 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 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 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)

  • 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

  • empower

  • execute (use run or do)

  • facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)

  • focusing

  • foster (unless it's children)

  • illegals or illegal aliens (use undocumented immigrants)

  • 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)

  • overarching

  • progress (what are you actually doing?)

  • promote (unless you're talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)

  • robust

  • simple or simply (use straightforward, uncomplicated, or clear, or leave the descriptor out altogether)

  • slimming down (processes don't diet)

  • streamline

  • 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)

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 upfront.

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.