Write with wit, Leeds staff told

Communications team distributes 30-page writing-guidelines document. Melanie Newman reports

January 7, 2010

Staff at the University of Leeds have been told to "demonstrate their positivity" and even use "some gentle wit" when composing official documents.

New "tone-of-voice guidelines" have been drawn up to help employees "write more creatively and effectively" and create "a strong verbal identity that we all understand".

"Words are our most powerful tool," says the 30-page document, which has been sent to all staff. "What's more they're free, available and ready to use."

The guide includes a list of university principles - "collaboration", "challenge", "generosity" and "excellence" - which it says should "come through in the content of our language and the messages we try to communicate".

Being challenging, it says, does not mean "making life overly difficult", and being generous does not mean "giving to the wrong things or people".

Instead, the guide informs staff, the principles they are expected to embrace mean that "we care about what happens to each other and out there in the world at large".

Also included is a set of personality traits to "guide how we talk and write for the university". Leeds, it says, is straightforward, friendly, imaginative and confident.

In order to demonstrate friendliness, staff are asked to use inclusive language: rather than referring to "the university", they should use "we".

The university is "down to earth ... in touch and relevant", the document says, warning academics and others against "falling back on tired old cliches" in their communications.

A section offering writing tips tells staff to "think about what you are trying to say" and "divide your work into manageable paragraphs of no more than eight sentences".

Some Leeds academics expressed surprise when they received the document from the university's communications team.

Commenting on a page titled "why language matters", one said: "It's so reassuring, particularly for academics in the arts and humanities, to know that these big issues have been sorted out already."

The document concludes by encouraging staff to treasure, enjoy and use the guide. "Life - yours, your reader's and the university's - will be a lot richer for it," it says.

The sceptical academic described this as "a rather puzzling assurance", adding: "Maybe the School of Food Science and Nutrition is working on the companion document, Egg-Sucking for Grandmothers."

More seriously, she said the document "shows a singular lack of faith in the abilities and initiative of all staff, not just academics".

Responding to the criticism, Leeds said: "Colleagues across the university are involved in writing marketing materials and they regularly ask the communications team for help.

"The team already runs workshops for staff to help them develop these materials.

"Following the workshops, members of staff asked for further support and consequently the style and tone-of-voice guides were developed."

It added: "Many writing styles are required across the university, so we would never prescribe a particular approach for all staff to follow."


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