Stylistic Rules of Thumb

From Observatory

Stylistic Rules of Thumb

General Audience/Tone

  • Write for a general audience unfamiliar with esoteric topics.
  • Don’t be afraid that you’re coming off as condescending if you are explaining something you think is obvious—just keep it brief, and your explanation will be useful and authoritative.
  • If someone else has already explained something most readers would be unfamiliar with perfectly, then quote them, link to them, and make sure they are properly credited.


Don’t bury the lede (also known as lead). Lede means the most important idea of your article or the thesis of your argument, and in contexts where you have followed this advice, it also refers to the first paragraph of an article). It’s best to put the thesis/most important information in the first paragraph. We find this both captures readers’ attention and has a better chance of conveying the essential part of your article to readers. All articles (even if they are analysis rather than news) should follow the inverted pyramid method of journalism.

Consistency (and Occasional Flexibility on House Style Rules)

Consistent inaccuracy/rule-breaking can be better than inconsistent inaccuracy/rule-breaking. (Or at least it is easier for the Observatory’s copy editor to fix, if it’s consistently one way or the other.)

If you aren’t following the rules or are following a different rule, try to do it every time. Examples are foreign names of people or places that have multiple accepted spellings or capitalizations or punctuations—try to keep consistent within a single article, as well as within all the articles you submit.

You can break a rule if you know the rule and are doing it on purpose. But generally, this is tough to do effectively, so we advise against it unless you want to have to defend it to the copy editor (and then to critical readers). :)

Active Voice and Passive Voice

Active voice is usually preferable to passive voice, with some exceptions (such as when the subject performing the action is unknown or intentionally underemphasized). Active voice tends to be more precise. Length-limited fields (such as headline, teaser, author bios, and ledes) strongly favor active voice. Don’t use passive voice for the sake of formality—ask who or what is doing/thinking/saying the action or thought in that sentence or phrase, and if the answer bolsters your argument or clarifies your explanation for general audience readers, then specify the subject and use an active verb. For reference, here are a few resources on active and passive voice rules and exceptions:

Don’t Use Euphemisms

Euphemisms hide the truth. Journalism is about revealing the truth. To ensure that your writing is clear and effective, avoid using euphemisms and say what you mean.

Examples of euphemisms to avoid:

  • “passed away” instead of “died
  • “low-income” instead of “poor”:
    • Contrary to what you might think, the word “poor” is not insensitive, nor is it pejorative. The reader’s mind connects the word “poor” with powerful images of poverty. But “low-income” doesn’t bring any images to mind. It is a sanitized and lifeless phrase.
    • Likewise, the words “marginalized,” “disenfranchised” and “underemployed” are all euphemisms for poor people.

Language: American English and Foreign Phrases

  • Use American English (not British English).
  • If you include a foreign word/phrase, either:
    • Leave it in normal font (not italic, and not in quotation marks) if you think its meaning is clear or if it is included in Merriam-Webster’s.
    • Put it in quotation marks if that makes sense, or italicize it if not. Make sure its meaning is clear by defining it in a parenthetical phrase, another sentence, or simply linking to a page you think best explains it to unfamiliar readers (can be Wikipedia).

AP Style

  • Use AP style. If you don’t have an AP stylebook online subscription, Google for the phrase to check the grammar, spelling, capitalization, or punctuation.
  • Try to find an example of the usage on an authoritative source that uses AP style and American English, such as the New York Times or another reputable national source or global source.
  • You can also Google something like “toward versus towards” or “‘in line’ versus ‘online’” and add in “AP style” or “grammar” in your search. Make sure wherever you find your answer seems authoritative.

Trigger Warnings About Mental Health and Suicide

Provide Mental Health Resources at the Ends of Discussions of Suicide

If suicide or self-harm is mentioned in the article, you may opt for an endnote in italics at the end of the article to offer resources as follows (this is U.S.-specific):

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call, text, or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

International guidance may vary (you may work with your editor to adjust for your article’s geographic region targeted in its subject matter/intended audience).

More Guidance/Resources for Journalists See also in case of updated information or recommendations (the note above and links below were drafted on September 19, 2023, and are subject to change):

This reference guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Reprinting with attribution to the authors for ​​noncommercial use is allowed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license guidelines, excluding third-party content.

For inquiries regarding content reuse, reprint rights, and licensing, visit the Observatory’s Reuse and Reprint Rights Guidance page.

Last Updated: October 27, 2023

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