The Common Room style guide | The Writing Academy

01 Jan 2019
By Unite Students, Staff writer at The Common Room

Every publication has its own way of saying what it wants to say. Its own style. This is a guide to the Common Room’s style.

It explains how we should sound, how we decide whether an idea is good for our readers, and some writing mechanics - like headers, links, and structure.

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Voice: Who are we and what do we sound like?

The Common Room is a collective. We’re a group of people, trying to help other people. So, what are we like? What’s our personality?

We're alwaysWe're never

Think of your article as a chance to remove someone's doubts or fears. Imagine your friend has told you she’s anxious about something, and you want to reassure her.

You can’t have all the answers. That’s not your role. But you can help her find some perspective, see that she has options, and encourage her to find her own answers.

Tone: Write it as you’d say it

Use contractions - I’m, we’re, you’re. They make your writing conversational and friendly. If you write every word in full every time, you’ll sound stiff and robotic.

For example, which of these statements sounds more like you speaking?

  • I am sure you will feel more relaxed once you have started.
  • I’m sure you’ll feel more relaxed once you’ve started.

Don’t be scared to write like the second statement. But remember two things:

One, conversational is good but slang excludes. Don’t use words that only certain groups of people use. Stick to simple, everyday words so everybody can understand you.

And two, one in five UK university students is from overseas. Too many contractions can be difficult for people who speak English as a second language. So don’t overdo it.

Readers: Who are you writing to?

Undergraduates, postgraduates, future university students, parents. The people who read our articles are a diverse bunch.

  • Read About the Common Room for more on who our readers are.

Thousands of people will ultimately read your article. But try to imagine just one person when you write. Someone you know and care about. Someone with the specific worry you are going to write about. Write to him and him only.

This means writing ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. This is far more personal than talking to an imaginary group with ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’. Also, remember that you too are just one person. Use ‘I’ and ‘me’ - we want you to tell your story with your voice.

Topics: What can you write about?

The Common Room is split into five categories:

Each category covers a number of subjects, which aren’t shown on the website but are reflected in the briefs you’ll receive when you become a student writer.

For example, in Study & Careers readers can find articles about:

  • Revision techniques
  • Preparing for an exam
  • Volunteering
  • Coursework
  • Working to deadlines
  • Managing time and priorities
  • Doing a work placement
  • Writing a CV
  • Starting a student business
  • Balancing work and study
  • Perfectionism

And more.

When we send you a brief, we’ll ask for an article on one of these broad subjects. Let’s look at how you can decide exactly what to write about.

Pitching: How to choose a narrow subject from a broad brief

When you’re thinking about pitching an idea, think of all the ways somebody might struggle with the subject you’ve chosen.

For example, let’s say we’ve asked you for an article on working to deadlines. Here are a few different reasons somebody could find it hard to do that:

  • They’re not sure how to plan their work or study time
  • They get easily distracted and struggle to focus
  • They want their work to be perfect and nothing less will do

From this list of problems, we get ideas for articles that can help the reader find their solution. For example, we could write:

  • Coursework: How to plan and get started early
  • Essays: How I split the task to hit the deadline
  • Exams: Foods that help you focus revealed
  • 6 Smart productivity apps for students
  • Why getting started is important but perfection isn’t

Don't worry if you struggle with this bit. Our Editorial Manager Alexandra will help you come up with ideas.

Word count: How long should your article be?

Between 500 and 900 words.

One size doesn’t fit all. It’s more important to do justice to your topic with a thoughtful, well-structured, and helpful article. If 500 words is enough, great.

If you submit a 900 word article, where everything’s relevant and nothing’s repeated, we’re more than happy to publish it.

Structure: How to write in a logical order

Your article should have a beginning, middle, and end. Just like an essay.

That might sound odd when we’re also asking you to be conversational. But since you can’t physically speak and listen to your reader, what you’re writing is all your bits of the conversation in one go.

Imagine your reader has already said his part, by getting his worry off his chest in a big splurge. Your article should acknowledge his problem, consider his options, and leave him feeling reassured and better equipped to make a change.

So, you should aim to:

Start with an introduction. Introduce and acknowledge the problem you’re about to tackle. A few sentences should be enough. Get into the solutions quickly so you don’t lose their interest.

Followed by options. This is the crux of your reply. Draw on your own experiences to show your reader how he can work through his situation. What worked for you? How? Consider the specific problem each option helped you overcome. This will give each one of your points a good conflict/resolution structure.

Linked by bridge sentences. These link your points and add an element of story to your article. ‘So, how do we do that?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’ ‘What do we do next?’. Picture the last line of a chapter in a really good thriller. It’s full of suspense and leaves you desperate to read the next page. How can you do the same from point to point?

Ending with a conclusion. Summarise your argument and end on a positive note, which is that your reader now has options. Think about where he’ll go next, and help him get there. That might mean a link to another article, or contact details of a helpful organisation.

You don’t have to write them in this order, it’s often easiest to do the middle bits first.

But, when you piece it all together, it should read as one argument with this logical flow.

Titles: Tell the reader what’s coming and make it useful

A good article title does two things.

One, it gives the reader an accurate description of what the article is about so that, if they click on the link, they don’t feel like they’ve been tricked.

And two, it shows the reader why they should click on the link and read your article. What’s the benefit?

For example, this title does both things:

Quit the gym. These 9 free apps will keep you fit

If I click on this link, I know I’ll see a list of apps to help me spend less money on exercise.

Try these words to get both description and benefit into your titles:

  • How (to, you, I…)
  • Why
  • Discover
  • These
  • This
  • What
  • Revealed
  • Easy
  • Simple
  • Quick
  • Secrets

Aim for no more than 60 characters, including spaces.

Headings: Start with a verb to show the reader’s options

Good headings do three things:

  • they tell your reader what’s coming next
  • they allow your reader to quickly scan the page and get a glimpse of the detail
  • they break up your paragraphs, which makes the article easier to skim-read

A good heading, then, is one that accurately describes the text underneath it.

A great heading is one that does that and also starts with a verb - a suggestion of something your reader can do. This is important for the Common Room because we’re trying to help people see their options for working through a tricky situation.

Here are the headings from our article Community: 6 Ways to get to know your neighbours:

  • Throw a party
  • Share your top recipe on the notice board
  • Bake something for your neighbours
  • Discover more about people’s histories
  • Pick up litter even if you didn’t drop it
  • Greet people and connect your groups

Links: Include them to allow further reading

It’s possible that the Common Room already has articles on the topic you’re writing about. Do these articles cover something that yours won’t? Would your reader benefit from a link to any of them?

What about other websites? Did you find any great articles during your research that would help your reader understand the subject better?

If you’re quoting stats, data or making claims that need evidence, always include a link to the original research or an article from a reputable source.

Your article is one of many that somebody will read on this subject. There’s nothing wrong with helping them find other good and useful information.

Caution: Things we’re careful with or just don’t publish

Some things just aren’t suitable for the Common Room, and we will never publish them. These include:

  • Swearing
  • Plagiarism
  • Sexism
  • Mental health problem ‘triggers’
  • Homophobia
  • Racism
  • Details and methods of self-harm or suicide
  • Pornography
  • Glorification of alcohol or drug abuse

Let’s look at some of these subjects in further detail.

Alcohol. We know alcohol is a part of student life for some. But we never glorify binge drinking. If you write about excessive drinking, we’ll ask you to edit it. Students who don’t drink should not be made to feel abnormal or encouraged to drink more than is right for them.

Sex. A realistic view of sex at university is fine. So too are articles about sexual health. But pornographic or sexually explicit writing is not allowed.

Drugs. It’s okay to acknowledge that students might be exposed to drugs and drug use at university. But we never talk about how to use or buy drugs, glorify or normalise drug use.

Sexism. We won’t allow sexism or discrimination of any kind. Writing that normalises lad culture or is sexist in any way will not be published.

Mental health. Writing about your own experiences with mental health problems can be both empowering and tricky. Before you pitch this kind of article, please think carefully about whether it will be a positive thing for you to do.

If we do agree on an article about mental health, focus on the things you’ve done or are doing as part of your recovery.

For example, it’s okay to talk about feelings around self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. But we would never write about destructive or harmful behaviour. Your emphasis should be on the feelings and emotions, and how you’re managing them in a positive way - not on any unwanted behaviours they may have caused.

When we say we don’t write about things that could trigger mental health problems, we mean:

  • numbers that encourage people to compare, such as calories and weight
  • specific details regarding destructive behaviour, such as self-harm or suicide
  • the length or severity of a stay in hospital or formal treatment
  • links to websites or articles that contain these triggers

Also, avoid describing how you may have hidden a mental health problem from family and friends, as this could discourage people from confiding in others.

Questions? Ask us if you’re unsure

If you’re pitching, planning, or writing an article and you’re not sure if it’s suitable for the Common Room, just ask. We’ll be more than happy to help.

Alexandra Hepworth, Editorial Manager

Daniel Mehmet, Copywriter


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Staff writer at The Common Room