Charles Sturt University Policy Style Guide

The Policy Framework Policy promotes the use of plain English and consistent writing styles.

Where possible, we comply with the Australian Government Style Manual and the content on this page provides relevant examples.

The latest version of the Macquarie Dictionary will advise the preferred spelling in policy documents.

Style guide for policy writing

  • Types of policy text

    Types of policy text

    The policy framework policy defines the types of text in the University’s policy suite and the kind of material they should contain. Policy developers must take care to place:

    • high-level quality rules for an activity, authorities to make decisions, and rules for appeal and review processes in a rule or policy,
    • management process rules and other provisions that a governance body cannot add much value to in a procedure, along with relevant minor points of information and guidance, and
    • substantial guidance on factors to consider in making decisions, or how to go about and activity to achieve good practice, in guidelines.

    Policy developers need to understand the distinction between governance (rule/policy), management (procedure) and guidance (guidelines). Procedures can be approved more quickly than academic or governance policies, so placing process detail in procedures enables it more easily to be kept up to date.

    Mandatory requirements

    Only rules, policies and procedures should state mandatory requirements.

    • To set a mandatory requirement,  a sentence must use one of the verbs ‘must’, ‘will’ or ‘shall’.
    • Verbs like ‘should’, ‘may’ or ‘can’ don’t make the action mandatory, so staff or students cannot be held accountable for non-compliance.

    The phrase ‘is/are responsible for’ suggests accountability but does not clearly require the subject of the sentence to do something. That phrase is more accurate when someone has overall responsibility for something, or when summarising (in a ‘responsibilities’ section at the start of a text) what a role is required to do by mandatory provisions elsewhere in the text.

    refer to the Policy Framework Policy for more information

  • Plain English principles

    Plain English principles

    Charles Sturt University rules, policies, procedures and guidelines must be written in plain English so that texts are shorter and easier to read.

    To write and edit for plain English, apply the following principles:

    1. Use short, common, informal words
    2. Use precise words that will convey the meaning clearly
    3. Avoid or explain jargon, initialisms and acronyms
    4. Use verbs instead of verbal nouns
    5. Remove redundant words that don’t contribute to the meaning
    6. Prefer the active voice to the passive voice

    1. Use short, common, informal words

    Choose the shortest, simplest, least formal word that will convey the meaning, except when you need a different word to avoid repetition,

    Use: Instead of:

    before

    prior to

    but

    however (when introducing a qualifying clause in a sentence)

    can or may

    Is/are not

    change

    amend or amendment

    exam

    examination

    extra, more or further

    additional

    must or will

    is/are required to

    start or begin

    commence or commencement

    use

    utilise

    2. Use precise words

    Some words are used habitually in university writing, although more precise words are available. Here are some examples

    • ‘Method’ is often more precise than ‘methodology’: only use the latter in matters of scholarship or professional knowledge where someone is considering a range of possible methods and selecting one. In most university policy contexts we’re talking about a method.
    • ‘Strategy’ should only be used for high-level decisions that shape an activity. Don’t use ‘strategy’ where you mean specific practical steps: a word like ‘method’, ‘technique’ or ‘tool’ is more precise.
    • ‘Impact’ is too often used when a word like ‘affect’, ‘impair’ or ‘reduce’ would tell the reader what sort of effect we’re talking about.

    Other overused words to be cautious about using are: appropriate, collaborate, deliver/deliverable, determine, differentiate, engagement, highlight, important/importantly, innovative/innovation, leverage, nominate, outcome, outline (as a verb), pedagogy, significant/significantly, sustainable, synergies.

    You’ll notice that these are mostly longer, more technical-sounding words so they also breach the rule of preferring short, simple words.

    3. Avoid or explain jargon, initialisms and acronyms

    Always assume that at least some of the readers will be new to the University and unfamiliar with its technical language and abbreviations.

    Where possible, paraphrase technical terms: e.g., ‘the student management system’ not ‘Banner’.

    It’s often more concise, however, to use a technical term, initialism or acronym. In this case, you must explain it the first time you use it in a section of the text. (This is more reader-friendly than including the term, initialism or acronym in the glossary and expecting the reader to remember there is a glossary and look it up.)

    So: ‘Banner (the student management system)’, and thereafter ‘Banner’. In later sections, if it’s possible that the reader will start reading at this point without having read the earlier section, again, ‘Banner (the student management system)’ the first time it’s mentioned in the section.

    Use the same approach to introducing initialisms and acronyms in the text. These save space and time, but must be explained to the reader in each section where they are used.

    It looks careless if you explain an initialism or acronym and then don’t use it: for example where the text ‘Division of Student Success (DSS)’ appears, and then ‘DSS’ isn’t used again. It also looks careless if you explain an acronym or initialism and then revert to using the term or name in full.

    4. Use verbs instead of verbal nouns

    Use 'apply', not 'submit an application'.

    Application’ is a noun based on the verb ‘apply’. The principle is to use the active verb, as it’s briefer, more direct and less formal.

    Another example is: ‘a partnership agreement must include’, not ‘the expected inclusions of a partnership agreement are’.

    Keep an eye out for these verbal noun phrases in your writing, and replace them with verbs.

    5. Remove redundant words

    Remove words that are unnecessary to the meaning. This may require some thought at times. For example:

    • ‘investigate’ not ‘actively investigate’ (‘inactively investigate’ would be nonsense – it follows that ‘actively investigate’ is nonsense too);
    • ‘manage’ not ‘manage and administer’ (administer is a subset of manage, so adds nothing to the meaning);
    • ‘require action’ not ‘require specific action’ (action will always be specific);
    • ‘decide whether to take disciplinary action’ not ‘decide whether it is appropriate to take disciplinary action’ (appropriateness is part of the decision – why would you decide to take inappropriate disciplinary action?).

    Words like ‘actively’, ‘specific’, ‘appropriate’ are often added for the feeling they suggest, not because they contribute to the meaning. Strike them out.

    Words like ‘important/importantly’ and ‘significant/significantly’ are often redundant. Everything in a policy or procedure is by definition important and significant – it doesn’t need saying.

    6. Prefer the active voice

    University writing tends to do the opposite, preferring the passive voice, which makes it unnecessarily formal, ponderous and often obscure.

    The active voice is present when the subject of a sentence or clause within a longer sentence performs the action: for example, ‘candidates must carry out work’.

    The passive voice is present when the subject of a sentence or clause passively suffers an action: for example, ‘work shall be carried out’.

    The passive voice often leaves open the question of who is performing the action, so the passive voice makes it harder for the reader to understand what is going on. It also uses more words and tends to make sentences more convoluted.

    However, there can be good reasons for using a passive voice – just not as a default.

    Good reasons for using the passive voice include:

    • for variety in a long series of active-voice statements;
    • to state a general requirement where we don’t have a specific actor in mind;
    • where using the passive is more concise than using the active;
    • to soften a provision that the reader may perceive as harsh or punitive.
  • Sentence structure

    Sentence structure

    Keep sentences fairly short

    Sentences should average 22 words. They can be longer than 22 words, but not often, and when they are, they should follow the other plain English rules. Here’s an example of a sentence that is too long and tangled, from an old policy:

    • Work relating to the dissertation other than field work shall be carried out in a School or other authorised teaching division of the University except that the Executive Dean of Faculty may permit candidates to conduct their work at other places where special facilities may be available, provided the direction of the work remains wholly under the control of the supervisor and that there is at that work place a qualified Co-supervisor appointed by the Executive Dean. (77 words)

    This sentence needs to be rewritten and broken into several sentences:

    • Candidates must carry out work for the dissertation, other than field work, in a school or other academic unit. (19 words) The Executive Dean of the faculty may allow a candidate to carry out work at another place that has special facilities for the work. (24 words) In these cases the work must remain under the supervisor’s direction. (11 words) There must also be a qualified co-supervisor at the other location, appointed by the Executive Dean. (16 words).

    Where long sentences contain a list of points, breaking them into subclauses can make them more readable. In the last example, the last part of the sentence could also have been rewritten as:

    • In these cases:
      • the work must remain under the supervisor’s direction; and
      • there must be a qualified co-supervisor at the other location, appointed by the Executive Dean.

    Intuitive order

    Sentences and longer texts should present information to the reader in the order that makes it easiest to understand. This will often be a chronological narrative: ‘first this happens, then that happens’ or ‘if this happens, then that happens’.

    Here’s an example of a sentence that is hard to understand, from a policy text:

    • Researchers must deposit in Charles Sturt Research Online (CRO) the final draft manuscript of a research output that has been accepted for publication as soon as possible after acceptance.

    Placing this in chronological order makes it easier to read:

    • As soon as possible after a research output has been accepted for publication, the researcher must deposit the final draft manuscript in Charles Sturt Research Online (CRO).

    A policy or procedure about a specific activity should follow the ‘life cycle’ order of the activity, with sections for each stage of the activity. Typical life cycle stages are:

    1. governance,
    2. responsibilities,
    3. set-up/configuration,
    4. application,
    5. assessment,
    6. decision,
    7. record-keeping,
    8. complaints/appeals,
    9. reporting.

    Organising the text in an intuitive life cycle order makes it easier for readers to find provisions within a long text.

  • Inclusive language

    Inclusive language

    Avoid using words or phrases that exclude one gender or a particular group, for example:

    • ‘layperson’s’ not ‘layman’s
    • 'their' not 'his/her'
  • Capitalisation

    Capitalisation

    Australian style uses minimal capitalisation. This means capitals are only used where necessary for the meaning.

    Headings and subheadings

    Headings and subheadings should be in sentence case: only the first letter is capitalised, and after that only words or phrases that need capitalisation under the rules below.

    Names and titles

    The title of a named individual should be capitalised: Professor Jill Smith, the Associate Dean (Academic). But generic titles (associate deans (academic), or ‘the associate dean (academic)’ where any one of these is meant) should not be capitalised.

    Organisational unit titles should be capitalised when the full title of a specific unit is used: e.g., the Faculty of Science. But outside of these cases, organisational unit titles should be lower case (‘faculty’, ‘faculties’).

    The full title of a specific award should be capitalised: e.g., Bachelor of Arts. But neither types of award nor disciplines should be capitalised: e.g., ‘diploma’, ‘higher degrees by research’, ‘doctor of philosophy’, ‘arts’, ‘business’.

    Committee titles should be capitalised where there’s only one such committee: e.g., ‘Academic Senate’; but not where a number of the same committee are meant, or any one of a number of committees is meant: e.g., ‘faculty boards’, ‘the faculty board’.

    Publications

    Use title case for publications, for example policies and procedures.

    Names of forms and websites should be lower case.

    more examples of capitalisation rules

  • Punctuation

    Punctuation

    • Use commas minimally. Commas can increase clarity but too many commas are a sign a sentence should be shorter, or needs to be changed into a bullet point list.
    • Commas are not needed between two adjectives of different types. For example:
      • ‘appropriate written ethics approval’ not ‘appropriate, written ethics approval’
    • Do not use ‘Oxford commas’, for example ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’.
    • Do use full stops for other hyperlinks that end sentences.
    • Hyphens can change the meaning of a verb, for example:
      • re-form or reform
      • re-dress or redress
    • Don’t hyphenate login or sign in.
    • Some compounds much used in universities are hyphenated as adjectives, but don’t have hyphens when used adverbially: e.g., ‘full-time student’ but ‘studying full time’; ‘case-by-case basis’ but ‘considered case by case’; ‘up-to-date knowledge’ but ‘keep up to date’.
    • Dashes should be an en-rule with a space on either side – like this. (Word will turn a hyphen into an en-rule if it has a space on either side, and you just continue typing. You can also use Insert/Symbol to insert an en-rule.)
    • Remove double spaces – there should only be single spaces in text that uses modern proportionally spaced type.
    • Refer to the latest edition of the Macquarie Dictionary on whether an Australian compound will be one word, two words or hyphenated.
  • Numbers

    Numbers

    • Use words for numbers less than 10, except in large sets of numbers such as a table of data
    • Use numbers for 10 or greater
    • Number ranges should have an en-rule, for example 10-12
  • Lists and subclauses

    Lists and subclauses

    • The Australian Government Digital Content Guide principles of minimal capitalisation and minimal punctuation apply to lists.
    • Most lists are words or phrases within a framing sentence. Because they’re part of a sentence, they should start with a lower case letter and have a comma at the end of each item. If the last item ends the sentence, it should have a full-stop at the end.
    • Only where a list item is a full sentence in its own right should it have an initial capital and end with a full-stop.
    • In policy writing, where a sentence contains clauses that are in effect a list of actions, make them crystal-clear by formatting them as a list of subclauses.

    Policy subclauses

    Policy style of the university policy library is to use numbered clauses and lettered subclause (note this is different to the style of the university website). Unless subclauses are a full sentence in their own right, they should:

    • start with a lower case letter and have a comma at the end,
    • the second last point in the list should end with ‘, or’ or ‘, and’ (as appropriate), and
    • the last point in the list should end in a full-stop if it is the end of the sentence that starts with the clause (as here).
  • Editing texts

    Editing texts

    Self-editing and team editing

    Too often university writers think more about the content of texts than they do about the reader’s experience. Many university texts give the impression that the writer stopped typing, thought, ‘Good – that’s everything it needs to say,’ and gave little or no further thought as to whether it was well said – whether it would be easy for the reader to understand.

    During and after drafting, rigorous self-editing is essential. In particular, look for places where the text breaches the plain English principles above, and correct this. But also consider the order of information in sections of the text – the reader’s journey through the text.

    • Is it a smooth, intuitive journey?
    • Are the various sections consistent with one another – for example, in the terms they use for the same things?
    • Are all the clauses needed? (Shorter is almost always better.)

    It’s not easy to see faults with our own work; asking a colleague to give it a rigorous review is a good double-check to ensure a high standard of readability – particularly if the colleague has also integrated the plain English principles into their practice.