Note: This resource was developed for our Lewis & Clark ENVS students in 2017, updated with CMS 17th edition in fall 2019, then updated with some digital pointers in 2020; additions/edits will be made as per our own needs, but feel free to modify for your institution.
Environmental communication necessitates as much attention to good English style as in other subjects. Below are some reminders, based on what we have seen as common issues in student writing.
Where possible, we link to the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition; this and below links work from Lewis & Clark campus), one definitive style guide for American English. See also Chicago guidance on styling citations.
- Quotation marks (in American English, which applies to all below) are always double quotes, except when a quote is in a quote (CMS 13.30).
- Closing quotation marks follow a period or comma (CMS 6.9). (Note that footnotes follow all punctuation; see e.g. CMS 14.26.)
- Don’t overuse scare quotes, and make sure if you use them that you are referring to how someone else uses the term, not you (CMS 7.57). (See related note at bottom regarding use of Big Words.)
- Section headings never include a colon at the end (see CMS 2.18 for general guidance).
- Author-date citations require page numbers for quotes (CMS 15.23). For more detailed guidance on the Chicago author-date style, see here.
- Figures require figure numbers and captions, typically directly under the figure (CMS 3.21).
- A nice summary list distinguishing common from better/correct usage of words can be found at CMS 5:250. Here are a few we’ve seen among ENVS students:
- Its vs. it’s (possessive vs. contraction). If you can’t say “it is” in place of your word, use “its,” not “it’s.”
- Affect vs. effect. This is important in ENVS given all the cause-effect relationships we discuss. If you’re looking for a verb, choose affect; if you’re looking for a noun (other than to describe emotions), choose effect.
And not strictly about style, but about words…don’t plagiarize. Use your own words. Here is an E&D guide to avoid plagiarism.
All good writing style is applicable to digital scholarship—an important feature of our ENVS Program at Lewis & Clark College. But writing for online reading entails additional style considerations. Here are some reminders from what we’ve observed among our students.
- Make a compelling title. Many digital works, such as blog posts, are often initially presented to the reader via their title. Make it interesting so that the reader clicks to read your content!
- Make it visual. The digital medium allows more than text: use visuals—still or motion images, charts, maps, etc.—to attract the reader and further their understanding of what you are saying. Make sure to properly format visuals with your text; and make sure not to overuse.
- Link, link, link. You can make the most of this web medium by linking to other web-based resources, especially if you are referring to something for which the reader may desire further information. Remember, it’s good practice to link to resources from other websites on a new tab; then the reader won’t have difficulty getting back to your site.
- Watch out for long paragraphs. Text can get difficult to read online if you don’t break it up into shorter paragraphs. Try to present each thought step by step. In some circumstances, you may want to create a standalone sentence!…typically a no-no in writing, but acceptable online.
- Explore other features your digital platform offers you. Students in our ENVS Program learn the basics of WordPress, including features such as block editing and embeds. These features make writing much more than blogging; ultimately, digital style expands the possibilities for good writing via everything a digital platform offers.
A final style note, applicable to writing in any medium: how should you best use Big Words (general concepts) commonly deployed in environmental discourse, such as “nature,” “the environment,” “sustainable,” and so forth? Here’s what we recommend (and require in our ENVS courses at Lewis & Clark):
- If you are quoting a publication, interview, etc. that uses the word, use it exactly as your source does, without any added scare quotes, making sure to cite the source.
- If it’s your own original text, however, try your best to use more specific words (e.g., instead of “impacts on the environment,” say “impacts on freshwater ecosystems”; or, instead of “make buildings more sustainable,” say “make buildings more energy-efficient.”) Think of these as “Smaller Big Words”!
- Never simply enclose a Big Word in scare quotes (e.g., “I think organic foods are better because they are more ‘natural’ for people to eat”); this is just an excuse for sloppy writing (and thinking).
- The Big Words prohibition in ENVS also applies to laundry lists, e.g., “…social, economic, and environmental dimensions…,” because this implies that “environment” is a category of reality distinct from other categories.
- You will find that if you can avoid use of Big Words your writing will be clearer, and you will be appreciated more as a careful, creative scholar.