Writing Style Guidelines

One of the largest, yet least-discussed, differences between an online and on-ground class is that an online class is primarily a text-based experience. The overwhelming majority of content is conveyed via written text, be it in content pages, handouts, or assigned readings. This means that an inclusive and well-edited writing style is crucial to a positive student experience in a course site.

Inclusive Writing

Students come to Northwestern from around the country and around the world. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences, and it is important to make sure that the courses they enroll in and engage with do not appear to be excluding them. To quote the APA Style Guide, “long-standing cultural practice can exert a powerful influence over even the most conscientious author. Just as you have learned to check what you write for spelling, grammar, and wordiness, practice rereading your work for bias.” 

What follows are some tips, based on the APA’s guidelines on reducing bias, for ensuring that your course is written in an inclusive way. These tips can be incorporated into discussion forum guidelines as well, to encourage your students to also be thoughtful and inclusive when addressing each other. And of course, be open to and respectful of feedback from your students. If a student points out something in the course that seems to be exclusive in nature, consider altering it, or at least providing context for why it has been presented this way.


Do not default to male pronouns or descriptions when the gender is unknown or vague. For example: “a student should put his books down on a desk.” Alternatives include restructuring the sentence to avoid needing pronouns, making the subject plural and using they/them, or deliberately alternating pronouns.

Speaking of they/them, the singular they pronoun is also acceptable in certain contexts. Some style guides permit it in less formal contexts, such as online discussion boards. It has been used as a singular pronoun when gender is unknown for centuries, as noted by Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster also adds that the singular they can be a preferred pronoun for people who do not identify with the male/female gender binary. Always respect the pronoun preferences expressed by students.

Be cautious when using male and female in your writing. They are acceptable as descriptors–male students, female employees–but should generally be avoided as nouns. It is especially important to avoid mixing and matching men/women and male/female (i.e., men responded 60% of the time, while females responded 80%). Using male and female as nouns can be dehumanizing and should be avoided.

Sexual Orientation

Avoid making assumptions about the gender of someone’s spouse or romantic partner. For example, if a woman mentions her spouse, do not assume she is referring to a husband.

Avoid binary descriptions like “gay and straight,” as this excludes people who have other sexual orientation identities, such as bisexual.

Race & Ethnicity

Avoid using the word “minority” simply as shorthand for any non-white racial or ethnic group.

Avoid overly broad descriptions, such as talking about Africa like it is a single country or Native Americans as if they all belong to a single culture. Be specific.

Use commonly accepted designations, such as U.S. Census categories, to refer to racial and ethnic identities. However, if an individual expresses a preference (Black over African American, for example), use their preferred identity label instead.


Avoid language that reduces a person to their condition (the disabled or the autistic) or that carries negative connotations (confined to a wheelchair). Even seemingly “neutral” terms like hearing impaired or visually impaired can be hurtful to people in those communities; phrases like “deaf and hard-of-hearing,” “blind and low-vision,” and “physical/mobility disabilities” are preferred.

Try to avoid common colloqualisms that paint disability in a negative light, and instead simply be straightforward about what you mean. For instance, rather than saying “Sorry for the late update, my week has been insane!”, say “My week has been really busy!” Or rather than, “I know this video is kind of lame, but please watch to the end,” say “I know this video isn’t very exciting…”

For further information about disability and language, check out this blog post from Disability in Kidlit, which advises writers and readers on how to approach disability in literature.

Other Considerations

While writing is the most common area where these issues arise, consider inclusivity in other areas of your course design. If you are using stock photos, for example, make sure that people of various genders, races, etc. are represented.

Be aware of what words you choose based on who is acting or being described. For example, men who speak up in a meeting may be described as assertive, while women who do the same may be described as abrasive. Consider context and connotations.

Well-Edited Writing

Just as with any professionally published book or article, the written text of each course site will be proofread before it is published for students to access. This proofreading will correct  things like grammar mistakes, spelling errors, and formatting mishaps. Content-level issues or questions will be noted in a log for the faculty and/or learning designer to review and adjust personally.

Faculty developers are asked to select a style guide for the Content Specialist to reference while proofreading their course. The most important reason to use a style guide is consistency. Course sites span multiple pages and are built over many months. Developers and designers may not remember from page to page how they formatted a citation or if, for example, they put a hyphen in the phrase “user-centered design.” A style guide provides them with a single set of rules to follow. This way, information is presented to students in a consistent manner across all pages of the course site. They’re able to understand and use the information faster when they don’t pause to work out the meaning of a sentence or locate the title in a citation.

It’s also a good idea to use a style guide in order to model good academic writing to your students. This is doubly important for classes in which students are expected to write papers and cite their sources. Faculty should model the kind of citations they want to see students turn in. This reinforces the standards laid out in a rubric, and there’s no confusion when students look between their style guide and the course site.

Style Guides

There are a wide variety of style guides available, and it can be difficult to determine which one to use. The following is a list of the most common and widely used style guides, along with information on the disciplines that tend to use them.

APA Style

Published by the American Psychological Association (APA), the APA Style Guide (6th ed.) is the standard guide for behavioral & social sciences. This includes psychology, sociology, political science, education, business, and more. It is also the default guide used for Northwestern University SPS course sites. If a style guide is not specified by the faculty, this is the guide that the site will be checked with.

Chicago Style

The Chicago Manual of Style, written and published by the University of Chicago Press, is used in many fields, and is probably one of the most extensive and detailed English language style guides currently available. It is broadly accepted in many academic fields; however, some academic fields may prefer that writers use a more focused guide (APA for social sciences, Lancet or AMA for medicine, etc.).


The Lancet style guide, developed by the Lancet Journals, is used in some medical fields. At SPS, many faculty in the Global Health program use this style.


The Modern Language Association style guide is most commonly used within liberal arts and humanities. It is not commonly used outside of those fields, however, and may cause confusion if used in a business technology course, for example.