Style Guide for Writing University Policies

UW–Madison Responsible Offices (those that develop, administer, and maintain university policies) should follow this guide when drafting new or revising existing university policies. Following this guide will help ensure that university policies are accessible, easy to understand, and enforceable.

Although this guide incorporates and adheres to UW–Madison’s preferred editorial styles, it is not intended to be a comprehensive style guide. For specific style questions not addressed in this guide, refer to the UW–Madison Editorial Style Guide.

General Guidelines

1. Keep it simple.

Write policies in plain language. They should be easily understood by the entire university community. 

2. Keep it general.

Policies should be broad enough and clear enough to apply to changing and unanticipated circumstances. Policies cannot anticipate all possible situations. More detailed information can be provided in accompanying resources, such as procedures, guidelines, and frequently asked questions (FAQS).

3. Make it helpful.

A policy should tell the reader why it exists, who it affects, its major conditions and restrictions, when and under what circumstances it applies, and how it is to be carried out.

4. Check for compliance.

Ensure that each policy complies with applicable university requirements, industry requirements, and current state and federal laws/regulations.

5. Check for conflicts with other university policies.

Check related policies to ensure your policy is not in conflict with any other university policies. Coordinate with the appropriate Responsible Office to resolve any issues.

6. Make it enforceable.

Be prepared for the university to enforce each policy. Do not write or revise a policy without intending it to be enforced.

Policy Template and Instructions

Use the policy template and instructions available on the Policy Development page of this website when drafting a new policy. The fields in the template align with the fields required for all university policies in the policy library. Following the template is important for consistency and accessibility.

(When revising an existing policy, use a copy of the policy extracted from the policy library to make changes.)

Policy Titles

When creating or revising a policy title, make sure it is concise and clearly communicates what the policy is about. Do not use the word “policy” in the title since the policy template already indicates that it is a UW–Madison policy.

Also, keep the following in mind:

  • Policy Scope: If the policy impacts only some constituencies, the title should reflect that. (For example, the University Smoke-Free Policy is general in scope, but the Housing Smoking policy impacts only those who live in or visit university residence halls or apartments. The latter policy should be titled, “University Housing Smoking Policy.”)
  • Policy Focus: The policy title should reflect the main message of the policy.
  • Plain Language: Use wording in the policy title that any user can easily understand. Avoid using acronyms in policy titles.
  • Length: Use as few words as possible to capture the essential information. All things being equal, shorter titles are better than longer titles.
  • Searchability: Ideally, a policy title should embed key terms that a user might commonly use to search for the policy.
  • Obsolete Language: Ensure that the title does not use old or outdated terminology (e.g., “classified staff”); if necessary, replace it with updated terminology (e.g., “university staff”).

Key Policy Writing Considerations

Because the audience for a policy is generally the entire university community, the policy language must be understandable to everyone, not just subject matter experts. Here are some tips:

  1. Assume that readers have a basic understanding of the university campus and community, but limited knowledge of specific policies.
  2. Use clear and precise words, short sentences, and common terminology. If subject-specific terminology or words with specialized meaning must be used, define them in the policy. Be consistent when using technical terms. When multiple words have the same meaning, choose one and use it throughout the policy.
  3. Use “must” or “will” instead of “shall.” Be aware that using “should” suggests that action is optional and not required. The purpose of the university policy is to set forth requirements, not permissive guidelines or procedures.
  4. A policy should be written so that it is easily understandable by all members of the university community, regardless of educational background, field of work, or English language skills. There is functionality available in the Spelling & Grammar check feature in Word that allows you to find out the reading level (and readability) of a policy.
  • Use the active (vs. passive) voice. The Writing Center website has information on how to use the active voice. 
  • Avoid using qualifiers (e.g., totally, completely, definitely), redundant words (e.g., absolutely essential, may potentially, brief summary, etc.) or unnecessary words (e.g., please).
  • Avoid using jargon or words that only subject matter experts would know. 
  • Use short words (one or two syllables, e.g., “use” not “utilize”) when possible and write in short sentences. Avoid sentences with multiple clauses. 
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation. 
  • Avoid and omit unnecessary words (e.g., write “Faculty and staff must…” instead of “All faculty and staff must…”). See the table below for plain language examples, as well as words and phrases to avoid.
Plain Language Words & Phrases Excess Words & Phrases to Avoid
So Accordingly
Now; Currently At the present time
Forms; Makes up Constitutes
To; For For the purpose of
Under In accordance with
To In order to, as a means of
If In the event that
Of; About Pertaining to
Of Related to
About With regard to
About; In; With In relation to
Because On the grounds that
Help; Assist Provide assistance

Additional information on the use of plain language can be found on the Center for Plain Language website.

  • Do not use masculine or feminine pronouns as the default; use “they” or “the individual” instead.
  • Avoid using gendered nouns such as chairman, man, mankind, man-made, etc. Instead use gender-neutral nouns such as chair, coordinator, humanity, individual, machine-made, person, synthetic, etc.

Additional advice and information can be found on The Writing Center website: Using Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Academic Writing.


  • Link Text: Make link text that is concise, descriptive, and meaningful, such as “instructions for making accessible pdfs,” instead of “click here” or “more.”
  • URLs as links: Web addresses, or URLs, are not always human-readable or screen-reader friendly. They present challenges in readability and length. Screen readers will read the full URL if it is not encoded within text. Therefore, it is best practice to embed the URL within other text:

Avoid: WebAIM’s Tutorial on Link Best Practices:

Instead, use: WebAIM’s Tutorial on Link Best Practices.

Text Styling:

Minimize the use of bold, italics, and underline in the policy. Many screen readers are unable to differentiate between styled and regular text and will read them the same.

Visual Aids, Tables, and Graphics:

Visual aids, tables, and other graphics in a policy can pose accessibility difficulties for people with disabilities. They should not be the primary means to relay significant information or policy requirements. Complex tables are strongly discouraged. If they are required for understandability, they must be made accessible to the extent possible.

Information and resources for how to make a visual aid, table, or graphic accessible can be found at:

Go to UW–⁠Madison Information Technology’s Make It Accessible web page for more information. 

Applying an equity lens to a policy means analyzing the impact of the policy on under-served and marginalized individuals and groups, and identifying and potentially eliminating barriers.

Consider the following as you review your policy through the lens of others to ensure it impacts the entire campus community fairly and equally:

  • Language: Is the policy written using simple and inclusive language (without gendered nouns or pronouns, jargon, or technical terms)? Will everyone in the campus community understand the main message of the policy and how it impacts them? Refer to UW–⁠Madison Information Technology’s Writing Content web page for more information about writing a policy using inclusive and bias-free language.
  • Impact: Does the policy treat all impacted members of the campus community fairly and equally, as outlined in the guiding principles of the Policy Library and university mission? Is there a disproportionate or negative impact for those who need to understand the policy or follow related procedures?
  • Background: Does the policy perpetuate or help eliminate historical, legal, or other barriers? Is it in alignment with current best practices and university values?

Treatment of Common Policy References

  • List external references alphabetically. Use concise, descriptive, and meaningful names for external references. Put a comma after the name of the reference, and then type out (or copy and paste) the URL.

Example: Fundraising Principles and Guidelines,

  • References to Wisconsin Statute:
    • For an individual statute citation, use a single section symbol: Wis. Stat. § XXX(X).

Example: Wis. Stat. § 16.417(2)(b)

    • For multiple statute citations, use two section symbols: Wis. Stat. §§ XXX(X) and XXX(X).

Example: Wis. Stat. §§ 19.45(3m) and 19.56(3)

    • For a complete statutory chapter, use the format: Chapter XXX, Wis. Stats., “[Chapter Title].”

Example: Chapter 125, Wis. Stats., “Alcohol Beverages”

  • References to Wisconsin Administrative Code: Use Wis. Admin. Code § XXX.

Example: Wis. Admin. Code UWS § 21.

  • References to UW System Board of Regents policy: Cite as “Regent Policy Document XX-XX, [Policy Title].”

Example: Regent Policy Document 20-21, University Personnel Systems

  • References to UW System policy: Cite as “UW System Administrative Policy XXX, [Policy Title].”

Example: UW System Administrative Policy 1230, Workplace Safety

  • References to the Code of Federal Regulations: Cite as “[Title Number] C.F.R. § [Section Number].”

Example: 20 C.F.R. § 404.260.

  • References to the United States Code: Cite as “[Title Number] U.S.C. § [Section Number] ([Year]).”

Example: 42 U.S.C. § 3601 (2010).

Quick Style and Grammar Tips

  • Always spell out on the first reference, followed by the acronym in parentheses (e.g., Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC)). Thereafter, use only the acronym.
  • Avoid using acronyms in policy titles. (See Policy Titles above for more guidance on writing titles.)
  • Capitalize the word “university” only as part of a formal title; lowercase on all other uses (e.g., The University of Wisconsin–Madison will be offering free COVID-19 vaccinations to all faculty, staff, and students; the university is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated).
  • Capitalize job titles only when they are formal titles that appear directly before a name (e.g., Chancellor Blank, Provost Scholz) or are set off by commas after a name (e.g., Rebecca Blank, Chancellor; Karl Scholz, Provost). Do not capitalize on other uses (e.g., the chancellor, the provost).
  • Capitalize the proper names of schools/colleges/units (e.g., College of Optometry, Office of Administration and Planning). Do not capitalize subsequent generic references (e.g., the college, the office).
  • Always capitalize terms such as “Academic Staff,” “University Staff,” etc.
  • Always lowercase “non-exempt” and “exempt” as they are used to refer to employee classifications.
  • When writing dates in text, do not use a superscript:
    • Correct: March 20, 2020
    • Incorrect: March 20th, 2020
  • When writing the full date (month, day, and year), set the year off with commas before and after:
    • Correct: On April 3, 2020, we went to….
    • Incorrect: On April 3, 2020 we went to….
  • When writing just the month and year, do not place a comma between them:
    • Correct: June 2020
    • Incorrect: June, 2020
  • Spell out zero through nine.
  • Use numerals for 10 and higher.
  • Always use numerals for page numbers, including 1 through 9, no matter where they appear.
  • Use the Oxford comma—the comma that comes after the second-to-last item in a list, before the conjunction (and, or, or nor). For example, “Units must apply, authorize, and report,” not “Units must apply, authorize and report.”
  • Use a semicolon to separate items in a series when any of the items itself uses a comma. For example: “The process consists of benchmarking; testing, remedying, and monitoring; and reporting findings.”
  • Use parallel construction. Start sentences or sentence fragments using words in a similar format. For example, instead of “built a team, raises money,” say “builds a team, raises money.” Instead of “running, swimming, and exercised,” say “running, swimming, and exercising” or “ran, swam, and exercised.”
  • Use one space after end punctuation, not two.
  • Use the same word or words to refer to the same concept throughout a policy. For example, do not use “institution” and “university” interchangeably.
  • Be consistent in referring to the university – generally, the “University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison” on the first reference and “UW–Madison” or “the university” thereafter. (Since UW–Madison is one of 13 UW System schools, avoid using only “UW” to refer to UW–Madison.)


This guide draws from policy development resources available from other universities, particularly the Ohio State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.