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Writing Style

USDA uses two styles for publications and printing.  Materials developed primarily for the mass-media are written using the latest Associated Press Stylebook. All other materials are written using the latest Government Printing Office Style Manual in accordance with Title 44 U.S.C. § 1105. Form and style of work for departments.

 

Using the media prevalent style for the mass media audience increases the likelihood that our preferred USDA language appears in narratives as it was originally written.

The following lists USDA outreach products with guidelines for their production and the designated style. Also noted are exceptions to the style as deemed necessary by the Department.

These style guidelines are supplemental information to support the current department directives: DR1410-001 Publications Review/Clearance Policy; DR1420-002 Printing Policy; DR1430-002 Use of Logos/Marks at the United States Department of Agriculture; DR1440-002 Press Operations.

 

USDA press releases must adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook except where this document points to exceptions.

A press release is written to encourage media to report on a newsworthy USDA policy, action, or announcement. The department and our agencies’ public affairs directors and OC coordinators are responsible for determining whether a press release is an appropriate form of outreach.
 

Guidance for writing press releases

  • Use strong active verbs.
  • Use plain language.
  • In general, a news release shouldn't be longer than one page and no more than two pages.
  • Keep it brief.
    • According to Cornell University, research suggests the ideal sentence length is 15 to 20 words, with 85 percent of the words one or two syllables long.
  • Don't resort to run-on sentences; instead, use punctuation.
  • Always remember your audience are media professionals.
  • Use plain language, since releases may be used verbatim in media outlets.
  • Always read what you write and have a lay coworker read what you write. If they don’t understand it, chances are your audience won’t either.
    • Note: the media has significantly changed over the past fifteen years. Today, reporters are likely to be generalists without a strong agricultural or food policy background.
  • With rare exception, quotes should be 25 – 50 word maximum.
    • The purpose of the quote is to encourage the reporter to include the most important talking point using USDA’s exact words. 
    • Reporter’s stories are bound by the newspaper/magazine/broadcast editors’ word/time limits. If you provide too much, you encourage the reporter to paraphrase or pick and choose what part of the quote to include in the story. 
    • The reporter can be provided a press-background brief to educate them on the details of the program or policy announcement, it doesn’t need to be in the quote.
    • Quotes from outside principals, partners, or organizations are generally not used unless approved by the deputy director of communications for press operations. Key partnerships can be referenced in the release. Other federal agency quotes are acceptable with approval of the press secretary or their designee.

 

Following are some specifics to keep in mind when preparing materials. These include some USDA specific directions for formatting the press release.

Acronyms

Spell out U.S. Department of Agriculture and names of agencies and programs in the first reference. If an abbreviation or acronym would not be clear on second reference, do not use it. Often a generic word such as the agency or the program is more appropriate and less jarring to the reader. At other times, you may need to repeat the full name for clarity.

*Note: AP doesn't follow a term with an abbreviation in parentheses, though a well-known abbreviation may be used in follow-ups.
 

Attribution

Use said. It is a good, clean, four-letter word. Do not use: stated, noted, pointed out, commented, explained, or any other similar word. Use said.

In the first reference to the Secretary: “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack”

Second reference and beyond: “Secretary Vilsack”
 

Conjunctions

Follow AP style. When a conjunction such as and, but or for links two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences, use a comma before the conjunction in most cases: “She was glad she had looked, for a man was approaching the house.”
 

Commas in a series

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in most simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick, Harry or Jeannette.
 

Press release contact information

When the Secretary of Agriculture or subcabinet officials are quoted, list the Office of Communications at press@usda.gov (the general OC email address) as the first contact with the appropriate agency contact listed second. Do not put a comma between names and phone numbers.
 

Datelines

Datelines should be bold, and include city, month (use AP abbreviation), day and year. Datelines on stories should contain the place name, followed in most cases by the name of the state, country or territory where the city is located. AP allows for large cities to stand alone without a state name. See the AP stylebook for a complete list of exempted cities.

If an announcement is made by a USDA official when he or she is away from Washington, use the city where the official is that day as the dateline.

Capitalize the names of months in all uses.

Example

USE: WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2020

DO NOT USE: (Washington, D.C., January 7, 2020)


Formats

Single space news releases and other press materials. Justify them left, with 1-inch margins and half-inch indents. Skip one line between paragraphs. Use only Times New Roman 12-point typeface. Use MSWord software, Drupal or another USDA Chief Information Officer- approved content management system.
 

Headlines

Center headlines and boldface them. Do not use all caps. Capitalize the first letter in words except for conjunctions (but), prepositions (of) and articles (a). Follow the same rules for subheads, and put subheads in italics centered below the headline. Headlines and subheads are active tense.

With headlines that include the Secretary of Agriculture, this is the proper form: “Secretary Vilsack announces…”

Do not use the principal’s first name in the headline.
 

Stakeholders

Don't use the word stakeholders. Instead, describe who you mean, such as farmers, ranchers, commodities groups, members of Congress, private sector partners, public sector partners, or federal agencies.
 

Jargon

Don't use jargon. If you absolutely must use a jargon word, explain it.
 

Web addresses/Internet

Say: "More information is at www.usda.gov." There is no need to use a colon before at. If an Internet address falls at the end of a sentence, use a period. Do not capitalize the "e" in email. Do not say “click here.”
 

Ending the Release

End news releases with three # symbols, centered, two lines below the last line of the release.

Place this short EEO statement two lines below the three # symbols:  “USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.”

A short note after the text of a news release can be used to provide additional information to the media, such as the availability of photographs, publications or sound bites. Any "Note to Reporters," if needed, should be single-spaced, not exceed 1/3 of a page in length, and start two lines below the #.

 

Media advisories are used to announce a media call or press event where a principal USDA representative will make a significant newsworthy announcement. The primary audience is media. 

USDA media advisories are to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook, and should include the date, time, location, and RSVP information for the event along with other pertinent event information. Media Advisories use the same formatting/layout as a press release and have the same style exceptions.

 

Media background briefs are flyers and factsheets developed specifically to provide the media with additional detailed information that is not included in a press release or response to query.  The audience is primarily media, and the information is attributable to USDA versus a specific person. 

USDA media background brief text are to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook, and the USDA style guide which outlines the use of graphics, EEO statements and other visual elements. Media background briefs may be uploaded to the web in the agency’s pressroom along with the corresponding press release or media advisory. 

 

USDA statements released to the media are to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook.

Occasionally USDA Office of Communications, the Secretary, or an Agency Administrator will issue a short public statement to the media to highlight a significant initiative or policy position.  Unlike a quote found in a press release, these statements may run as long as 125 words in length.

The statements are formatted the same as a press release.

 

Responses to query are to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook.

Responses to query are often used in lieu of a press release when the Department takes a significant policy action or other legal action that is not in the best interest of the department to promote.  These short statements are provided to the media or other audiences upon request only. Word limit – 25-50 word maximum. In some cases, responses to query may include a corresponding media background brief.

 

USDA blogs are to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook.

The primary purpose of USDA blog stories is to drive media interest in a specific program or policy; however, blogs also provide a direct to customer narrative that promotes USDA and are shared on USDA social media platforms and between individual stakeholders. Blogs should not be a replacement for press releases. USDA blog length: maximum 300 words. 
 

AP Styleguide Exceptions

In the first reference to the Secretary: “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack”

Secretary quote should be followed by: “said Secretary Vilsack.”

 

USDA stakeholder notifications and notices to trade are to adhere to the Associated Press Stylebook.

Stakeholder notifications and Notices to Trade are communications to stakeholder groups announcing policy deadlines, board appointments, minor policy changes and the like that are not significant national newsworthy events.  These notices may be posted on an agency website but they are typically communicated through direct email distribution. 

The primary audience is not the media.  Despite this, in many instances, stakeholder announcements may be posted on the web in agency newsrooms and are often picked up by trade press and other targeted distribution outlets.  For this reason, they are written using the AP style.

Use the same USDA style exceptions and format as used for a press release. 

 

Fact sheets and information booklets and flyers are to adhere to the Government Printing Office Manual and the USDA style guide which outlines the use of graphics, EEO statements and layouts.

These communications are developed by agency and department program implementers in cooperation with their public affairs officers-- to inform the policy makers, the general public and program participants. 

 

Reports of research progress or of special program results that are in the public interest are to adhere to the Government Printing Office Manual and the USDA style guide which outlines the use of graphics, EEO statements and layouts.

 

Signature blocks are intended to be used as a method of providing sender contact information to message recipients. When sending either internal or external emails, USDA employees are acting as representatives of their Agency and the United States Government. Email signature blocks must accurately reflect the position and culture of the U.S. Government and Federal workforce. The Department provides the following guidelines for email signature blocks:

A signature block is typically located at the end of an e-mail message. The signature block is the part of an e-mail message that contains the sender's contact information. This information usually consists of at least the sender's name and phone number. A signature block might also include additional information, such as job title, department/organization, mailing/office address, e-mail address, fax or cell phone numbers, and the Department or Agency web site address. USDA employees have the option to include their pronouns in the first line of their signature block (i.e., he/him/his). Use of graphics in the signature block should be limited and is restricted to USDA and USDA business-related logos, such as the USDA logo. The USDA seal is reserved for use by the Secretary, the Secretary’s Senior Advisors, and the Mission Area Office staff.

Famous quotations or inspirational messages should not be included if they have the potential to be construed by the recipient as representing a government policy or position.  As a standard practice, USDA strongly discourages their use.

 

When featuring content on your site about specific Department programs, please ensure you are following that program’s specific copy and design guidelines, as applicable.

AskUSDA

AskUSDA is a contact center that answers general inquiries from the public using trained agents and self-service options. AskUSDA is set up to handle question regarding programs and services across the entire Department.

Program Name

Please ensure AskUSDA is written correctly across all mentions. Note that the correct way to reference the program name is without the space.

A checkmark icon  Correct: AskUSDA

An x icon  Incorrect: Ask USDA