CMU News Writing Guide
Newswriting tools and tips for colleges, departments and service units. Updated Aug. 30, 2023
In this guide:
- About CMU news
- What makes good CMU news?
- The writing process
- Important tips and reminders
- Use of photos
Central Michigan University’s website offers tremendous potential for sharing the CMU story with the campus community, future students and their families, external media and the world at large. Realizing this potential will require thoughtful, efficient, quality storytelling from every corner of our university. With that in mind, we’ve developed this reference for creators of such content. Our aim is to enhance your storytelling comfort, confidence and skills.
By recognizing highlights and happenings in your areas of focus and writing about them for the website, you will:
- Enrich the site with content relevant to one or more of our several audiences.
- Shine a light on notable people, events and accomplishments.
- Inform University Communications of news that may be worth expanding on or sharing through other channels, such as external publications and CMU social media.
- Bring to life CMU’s four “We do” brand pillars — real-world results, setting the leadership standard, lifting each other up and exemplifying a Fired-Up attitude — and our brand promise: “You will learn to lead in life.”
This Guidebook includes general pointers on writing and story structure, along with key elements from the University Communications writing style guide (based on the Associated Press style that UComm writers follow with a few exceptions). It’s designed to help you identify potential content; gather needed information; and write in a clear, concise and compelling way. The particulars of posting to the website are not covered here, as they will vary by person and role.
Your objective as a writer is to compose accurate and inviting stories that max out at about 300 words. What does a 300-word story look like? For one example, this introduction is 295 words long at the end of this sentence. (Now it’s an even 300!)
About CMU news
Our website’s homepage for news and features about the campus community is CMU news. Stories, photos and videos there — created mainly by University Communications staff — focus on innovative, interesting, important and on-brand actions and accomplishments throughout the university, including in academics, research, student and alumni life, and major initiatives and events. CMU news content is composed, edited and tagged to be as impactful and searchable as possible for greatest exposure. It often is shared through CMU social media channels.
We encourage you to share potential CMU news story, photo and video opportunities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or contacting someone on the Strategic Communications team. We especially want to hear about prospects that reinforce our “you will learn to lead in life” brand promise and our four brand pillars:
- Real-world results.
- Setting the leadership standard.
- Lifting each other up.
- Exemplifying a Fired-Up attitude.
What makes good CMU news?
There’s no shortage of good news to be found about CMU people and programs. Obviously, we can’t post everything, so how do we choose? Our “We do” brand platform can help by zeroing in on what distinguishes CMU from other colleges and universities in Michigan and across the country. Our mission, vision and values also shape the identity we wish to project. We want to highlight what we do differently (or better, or more, or first, etc.) compared to other institutions. And we want to focus on the pillars, promise, mission and values of the CMU experience.
That means writing about:
- Hands-on programs and real-life experiences — the kind that offer personal pathways to active learning and prepare students for life and careers.
- Success in competitions (especially beyond Michigan) and on career paths.
- Professional recognition and awards.
- International activity that demonstrates CMU’s global reach and engagement.
- Economic development activity that shows how CMU drives competitiveness, quality of life and prosperity in Michigan and beyond.
- Alumni success stories.
Setting the leadership standard
- New, innovative or unique academic programs, courses or projects.
- Leadership in its many forms by students, faculty or staff.
- Research and results that advance knowledge and demonstrate world-class quality and innovation.
- Major grants and partnerships that reflect CMU’s excellence and value.
- Distinctions and innovations that show how CMU leads in creative thinking, intelligent risk-taking and standard-setting for higher education.
- CMU’s modern and rigorous approach to academics.
Lifting each other up
- Our strong sense of supportive community.
- Teamwork and partnership within and beyond campus.
- Community engagement and service.
- Programs and people offering helping hands and expert services.
- Mentoring relationships and collaborations.
- Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Authentic relationships between and among students, staff and faculty.
Exemplifying a Fired-Up attitude
- Stories of personal drive and determination rooted in the CMU experience.
- The power of positivity, innovation and action.
- Major events and activities that celebrate CMU Chippewa pride and enrich college life or campus or off.
- Achievements by members of the CMU community, including alumni and global and nontraditional students.
Learning to lead in life
- Stories of growth, success and transition in lives, learning and careers.
- Examples of leadership by students, faculty, staff and alumni, and independent recognition such as prestigious awards and honors.
CMU’s vision and mission
- Being an inclusive community of scholars.
- Being a national leader in higher education inspiring excellence and innovation.
- Commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, discovery, and creativity.
- Student-centered education that fosters personal and intellectual growth to prepare students for productive careers, meaningful lives and responsible citizenship in a global society.
CMU core values
- Integrity, respect, compassion, inclusiveness, social responsibility, excellence and innovation.
And beyond that, sometimes we simply wish to share announcements of significant developments or changes in our colleges, departments and programs.
If your potential news item fits any of the above descriptions (without requiring too many contortions), chances are it’s worth writing and posting. Still not sure? You can always seek a second opinion from a colleague or supervisor, or reach out to a UComm team member directly or through email@example.com. UComm staff contact information is available on the CMU website.
The writing process
Preparing to write
Once you decide something is worth writing, a few questions can help you organize your thoughts. It might help to talk these through with someone:
- Do I have all of the information I need? Do I have the correctly spelled names and titles of people, organizations, awards, etc., and accurate dates, times and locations? Do I have students’ hometowns, majors and years of study? Do I understand the material? If not, who can I reach out to, or where can I find answers?
- Who am I writing this for? Is it most relevant to academic peers, future students and their families, or some other important audience? How can I write it in a way that will matter to them? (Note that you’re rarely if ever writing for the person the story is about. News needs to serve readers’ interests.)
- Could I sum this up in one sentence? A news story should have at its heart a single, simple focus, which often will be expressed in the first sentence. Consider: If you were going to tell someone the news in person, what would you say first?
- Can I relate this to CMU’s brand platform or mission, vision and values? Our newswriting should reinforce one or more of these fundamentals.
- Is there a call to emotion or action? What do I want the audience to think, feel or do after reading? Should I include hyperlinks or instructions?
- Is multimedia content available or possible? Guidelines and practices for uploading photos or videos to the website will vary depending on your role and other factors, but we all know the web is a visual medium. Can someone involved in the story provide photos/video, or is this something University Communications might want to shoot? If you’re not sure, you can reach out through the CMU website or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let the writing begin
There’s no single “right” way to write. Some people start at the top and write everything in order. Others write more freely and organize or revise their composition later. You’ll find a method that works best for you. Don’t let a blank screen intimidate you. Think about creating and combining specific building blocks:
- Title — A useful headline, label or description that will appear at the top of your news item on the website.
- Lead — This is communications-speak for the one sentence (almost always the first sentence) that sums up what your story is about. It will stand alone as its own paragraph. Note: It’s pronounced “leed” and often spelled “lede.”
- Details — After the lede, focus on the who, what, where, when, why and/or how of your news (whichever of these are relevant) — with all names, dates, titles, places, etc., double-checked for spelling and accuracy.
- Context — Tell why the news is significant to CMU, your college or area, your intended audience, and/or the parties involved. How does it fit with CMU’s brand, promise, vision or mission? Include background information if needed for completeness or clarity.
- Action steps — Include any hyperlinks or information that can help readers act on the news or dive deeper into the topic.
Important tips and reminders
Here are some pointers on writing effectively, efficiently and engagingly for the website:
Headlines/labels — They should tell enough about the story that a reader can judge whether it will be of interest. Simple and brief beats clever. Research suggests the ideal length for a web headline is six words (but write longer if needed for clarity, which is top priority).
Writing voice — While our attitude is Fired Up, our newswriting voice for the website shows restraint for the sake of professionalism, trustworthiness and readability:
- Write news in a journalistic style instead of in the first person or in a cheerleading way. Example: The team celebrated Johnston’s win as a first for a CMU student is better than We are so excited to announce that Johnston won!
- Write in the active voice to avoid a vague, overformal tone. Example: Students will present their research is better than Research will be presented by the students.
- Write in a conversational style. Avoid long words, long sentences and technical jargon. Explain complex ideas in plain language. Describe research in terms of practical applications where possible. Keep your audience in mind.
- Write with positivity and respect. CMU Chippewa pride is appropriate but should not come off as boastful or disparaging to others.
- Keep opinions within quotations or attributed to a person. Examples: “Johnston is an inspiration to us all,” the dean said or The dean called Johnston an inspiration are better than Johnston is awesome!
- Use quotes sparingly. Direct quotes, within quotation marks, are best reserved for when the speaker says something of note in a unique way or from a personal point of view, or is a VIP whose words on the topic should be included. If a person’s direct quote is long or awkward, consider paraphrasing it without quotation marks. Note, too, that you may compose a quote from someone if you have the person’s permission and approval of the wording.
The importance of accuracy
Inaccuracy anywhere on the website frustrates readers and undermines CMU’s credibility. You must ensure the accuracy of everything you write for the web — dates, titles, names and more. Good habits and good systems will help:
- Names — Always ask people how to spell their names, or check an authoritative source. Ask whether they have a preferred style (Tom or Thomas?) and if they wish to use a middle initial. Confirm the names of organizations or companies by looking them up online. Organizations that go by an acronym or initialism usually have a proper name that should be spelled out on first reference.
- Times, dates and locations — Always confirm them.
- Gender pronouns — Ask the person’s preference rather than assume.
- Avoid assumptions — For example, don’t assume that a student who was a junior last year is a senior this year. If in doubt, find the correct answer or leave it out.
- Review your facts — Double-check those personal and organizational names, awards, book titles, times, dates, locations, etc.
- Proofread — Always re-read your completed writing for accuracy, completeness, spelling, grammar and style before you consider it done. (Pro tip: Because the mind can easily fill in missing words or skip over other errors in normal reading, some find it useful to proofread sentence by sentence from end to beginning instead of beginning to end.)
- Source review — If possible, have the source(s) or subject(s) of your news item read the finished story for accuracy. Ask them to reply with an OK or any suggested fixes. (Pro tip: Specifying “for accuracy” and “suggested fixes” can help focus reviewers on the facts rather than on wording or stylistic differences.)
- Backstop — Nothing should appear on the website without at least two people having read it. Say, that sounds important enough to repeat: Nothing should appear on the website without at least two people having read it. Build review by a trusted colleague or supervisor into your system for writing and posting.
Use of photos
If your web content role encompasses choosing or posting photos, here are a few pointers:
- Consult the Sitefinity Playbook for appropriate photo sizing.
- Horizontal (landscape orientation) photos usually are best suited for web.
- Naturally, images should be of good technical quality and interesting composition. Good photos capture action, interaction and/or emotion. Good CMU photos should also represent our brand pillars, promise and values.
- Using photos captured on cell phones is completely fine.
- Only use photos that you have permission to use. Note that commercial photographers own the copyright to their photos. We may use them only with permission of the photographer (not of whoever has the print or file). Never search the internet for a photo and use it without permission.
- Photos accompanying news items should usually include a caption or description with the following information:
- Who’s in the photo. For staff or faculty, include job titles. For undergraduate students, include hometown, major and class (sophomore, junior, etc.) if available. Clarify who’s who by listing names “from left” or in another logical way. Note: You don’t necessarily need to list everyone’s name and description in large-group photos.
- Other relevant info, such as date, location or what the photo shows, if it’s not visually obvious.
- Credit to the person who took the photo.