Brand Writing Standards

Do you create content for Missouri State? We’re here to help.

Have you ever thought about why people will (or won’t!) read content from businesses or organizations?

Content that gets read has benefits:

  1. It’s helpful or relevant. In the case of Missouri State University, content may help readers apply to become a student, earn financial aid, learn about degrees and more.

  2. It’s well-written and well-designed.

Why we have writing tips

You need to grab attention quickly. When you send out your materials, according to Gold Quill Award-winning writing coach Ann Wylie:

  • 1/3 of your audience will give you 2 minutes (these are the in-depth readers!).
  • 1/3 will give you 30 seconds.
  • 1/3 will give you 10 seconds.

The average reading level of American adults is about 7th to 8th grade. Even people with the highest levels of education prefer text at this level or below. Why? It’s easy to understand, remember and act upon.  

The point of any communication MSU sends:

  • Get people to pay attention to us.
  • Help people remember what we said.
  • Have people act on what we need them to do. (For instance, apply for scholarships, sign up for a tour, etc.)

It’s in Missouri State’s best interest, and the best interest of the reader, to give people info they want and can use.

Tone

  • Put the most important info right up front.
    • If it’s not the most important info, it likely does not need to be in the piece.
    • When you smother people with info, they opt out.
  • A reader’s number 1 question: What’s in it for me?
    • Our writing should not just tell people our ideas, projects or services exist.
    • Instead, let readers know what those things do for them — why we benefit them.
  • A story is a verb, not a noun. Something should be happening. The verb is the story.
  • “You” is a power word. Use it as much as you can! It is the only pronoun that increases reading and is the most retweeted word.
    • All others, including “we,” reduce reading. Your reader is always the topic, so let them know that with this word.

Headlines

  • 500 people will read a headline for every 100 people who read a story.
    • That means most of your story is the headline.
    • Write clear, interesting copy that immediately gets across your point.

Structure

Don’t use the inverted pyramid. Instead, try this three-point approach for stories: Intro, short body, conclusion — also known as a beginning, middle and end.

Use subheads. Try this structure: Short lead, subhead, few paragraphs on the subhead topic, subhead, few paragraphs on the subhead topic, subhead, conclusion.

When recruiting for an academic program, try this for a starting sentence or headline: A short statement, starting with a verb, that invites the read to benefit. “Get your degree more quickly.” “Go around the world with a (example) degree.” “Work at the federal level with a (example) degree.” “Join the top performers in your field.” “Give the best possible care.” “Perform on Broadway, just like our alumni.” “Find your dream job.”

If you are writing about a survey or research, start with the most surprising, funny, helpful or dramatic finding. Leave the methodology for later.

Break up your copy. If it looks easier to read, more people will read it. Try:

  • Subheads.
  • Bullets. (If you have a list, you should use bullets.)
  • Bold-face lead-ins.
  • Photo cutlines/captions:
    • Every image needs a caption, even drawings and designs.
    • Reading studies show about 250 people will read a photo cutline for every 100 who read the story.
    • Use cutlines/captions to tell people what you really want them to know from the main story.

A bunch of numbers in text makes readers’ eyes glaze over. Put no more than three numbers in any paragraph. If you have numbers, consider pulling them out as stand-alone infographics.

Design/typeface

If you’re designing for print, try late design guru’s Edmund Arnold’s dollar-bill test. No block of copy should stretch longer than or wider than a dollar bill. If you put a dollar down on your design and it covers only body copy, add an element: A subhead. A photo. A pull quote. Anything to create another text or design element.

Italics typefaces take 11 percent longer to read. Use sparingly. MSU style does allow for italics on web addresses to call attention to them.

Text in all capital letters is hard to read. Use only as the MSU brand allows (some pull quotes, subheads, etc.). Do not use for body text.

By the numbers

Recommended best-practice lengths for MSU copy:

  • Facebook post: the optimum length is 40 characters: A link and a picture.
  • Sentence length: 8-14 words is the ideal. 21 is the max and should be the average.
    • Some sentences will be shorter, so some can be longer. But try for average. With longer sentences, we lose comprehension.
  • First paragraph: 25 words is the ideal.
    • It’s not the job of the first paragraph to tell all! Just to get you to read the second.
  • All other paragraphs: 42 is the ideal; 63 is a good maximum.
    • We respond visually to paragraphs. People will read or not based on how text looks when they see it.
    • Hit return more often. It’s one of the best ways you can encourage readers to move through your piece.
  • Word syllable length: 2 is the ideal and should be the average.
    • This is according to the Gunning Fog index readability test. You can sprinkle in longer words sporadically.

How to check your work

Use the readability statistics available in Word’s spelling and grammar tool. Your goals:

  • Sentences per paragraph: 3
  • Words per sentence: 8-14
  • Characters per word: 5.0 or less (The New York Times hits 4.8 most days.)
  • Flesch Reading Ease: at least a 60-70
  • Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level: 6-8 is ideal. 9 and above is too high
  • Passive sentences: 0%

Is your sentence too long? Take a breath, then read it out loud. If you run out of breath, the sentence is too long. 

When you think you are done writing, read your text out loud. Kill anything that’s stuffy. Rework anything that’s confusing.