Writing With Style

October 28, 2004

Arthur Nead

Every day, faculty, staff and administrators throughout Tulane University write letters, generate promotional mailers and send e-mails.

fsimonThese communications and many others are vital in the internal and external life of the university. A team of university communicators has now provided writers at Tulane with a concise, easy-to-use style guide for use in university communications.

The guide can be found at, and provides definitive questions to many common questions of editorial style.

"It came to our attention that a lot of people were having questions about style issues in written communications, and we also noticed a lot of inconsistencies," says Fran Simon, public relations director for the Tulane University Health Sciences Center.

In fall 2002, Simon became chair of a committee of 12 professional communicators representing all the university campuses and drawn from the Tulane Cancer Center, Center for Bioenvironmental Research, Office of Development, the Health Sciences Center, Faculty of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Office of University Publications, Office of Public Relations and School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

"We definitely used a team approach," says Simon. The committee began its work with a survey of then-current practices at Tulane in the area of written communications, which included the university's periodicals and its website.

After benchmarking existing practices, the committee compared these with communications practices at nine other institutions of higher learning.

The committee looked to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) for information on style in communications and also reviewed a variety publications on writing and editorial style.

"Our conclusion was that most universities have a style guide," says Simon. "And for the most part, they are unique to each institution -- there is no one, simple universal standard."

Over a period of months, the committee developed a set of editorial style guidelines to help writers at Tulane through the thorny thickets of administrative prose. The completed online style guide addresses issues such as the correct use of abbreviations and acronyms; forms for administrative and professional titles; details on the use of the term "alumni" and related terms; correct forms for compound and hyphenated words; computer and media technology usages; rules for use of the university's recently updated how to name buildings, centers, programs, departments, schools and colleges; and more.

Many sections of the style guide address style issues unique to Tulane University, over and above broader questions about editorial style. For questions about English usage in general, the committee recommends referring to two style manuals to supplement the Tulane style guide -- the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law.

Also recommended by the committee are Merriam-Webster's unabridged and collegiate dictionaries. However, even these authoritative style guides are not in complete agreement on all points of usage, according to Simon. The main thing, she notes, is for any particular document to be consistent in the rules it follows.

"We would like very much for all the different units to follow the university guidelines for style so that we present one cohesive identity," Simon says. "We believe there is strength in the university as a whole." The style guide is not carved in stone, Simon is quick to point out. "We frequently get requests for additional information and suggestions, and we're open to that," she says. "We intend for our committee to be an ongoing committee that meets periodically to address new issues as they come up."

Simon says it's necessary to realize that style considerations for writing are similar to style in fashions in that they change. "Hems go up," she says, "Hems go down. Then they may go back up again. Written style is fluid -- it reflects current thinking and trends."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000