General Writing Guide

Today, writing well is perhaps more important than ever. Students and professionals rely on the written word to communicate through multiple platforms, like email, social media, websites, homework submissions online, business communications and more.

While most writing guides vary depending on what you’re writing, there’s a few general rules of thumb that can help you be a successful writer— whether you’re counting on your next email to win you your dream job, or you’re writing the essay your final grade depends on. This short post will get you on the right track by covering basic writing guidelines, best practices and a few tips of the pros.

Basic Writing Guidelines

1) Use an appropriate format for your document.

If you’re writing a nursing paper or a dissertation, you may need to format your document according to APA citation style. If you’re writing a paper for a high school class, your instructor may require you to use MLA format. However, if you’re writing an email to a professor or employer, you’ll want to keep paragraphs to just a few lines for essay reading. Check your assignment instructions to see what format you’re required to use. Visit the Writer Tools writing lab for examples of how to format different citation styles.

2) Give credit where credit is due.

Always cite your sources. Even if the document you’re writing doesn’t require you to use a specific citation style, always give credit to authors whose ideas you’ve described, and especially, quoted.

3) Organize your ideas logically.

Whether you’re writing a resume, an email, a dissertation or short-response essay, organizing your ideas helps readers stay engaged and understand your message. Organization can follow several formats, such as:

  • Chronological organization (such as a business plan timeline),
  • Alphabetical organization (as used to organize annotated bibliographies), or
  • Essay template (introduction, body and conclusion).

Best Practices

#1: Know your audience.

You’ve probably heard this phrase before, especially if you’ve studied marketing. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most important components of writing effectively. If you understand what’s important to your readers, you’ll be able to write in a way that makes sense to them and addresses the questions they have.


  • If your reader is a professor, he or she will probably want to know you understand your topic, can think critically and organize your ideas. That will mean you’ll want to write about connections you found in your research in a logical way.
  • If your audience is an employer, they probably want to know you’re capable of doing the job. So, rather than focusing on using fancy language, it’ll be important to write concisely about your related experiences.

  • If your audience is a scholarship committee, they probably want to know how you’ll use the funds they provide you. This means you’ll write about the skills and ideas you plan to contribute through your academic and professional career.

#2: Find your voice.

Writing in an appropriate voice, or tone, is usually easily accomplished once we know our audience. For instance, when writing a resume, you’ll want to use formal but concise language, whereas a dissertation will require a formal, scholarly tone.

#3: Be concise.

Some types of writing require more details than others. But, you should always try to say as much as you can in as few words as possible. Avoid run-on sentences, and get to the point. Also, avoid filler phrases.

#4: Use grammar and spell check.

Whether you’re writing in word, Google Docs, Gmail or other platforms, most apps and software have built-in spell check systems. Use them. You’ll be glad you did.

#5: Proofread your work.

Spell check is no substitute for your own eyes. Proof your writing to make sure facts and quotes are cited, and organization and flow make sense.

Pro Tips

Don’t rely on autocorrect and spell check. Even autocorrect and spell check make mistakes and miss things. Always proofread your work.

Don’t be redundant. Avoid re-stating facts just to fill up space or because you’re afraid it wasn’t clear the first time. Keep your communication succinct and to-the-point.

Be as specific as possible. The more readers understand the details you’re trying to share, the more engaging and relatable your writing will be.