Voice & tonal tips

Broadly speaking, the tone of voice for RISD communications is light (but not vapid), energetic (not frenetic), informal and relaxed (but not sloppy), confident (but never patronizing), smart (but not scholarly) and accessible (but not dumbed-down).

Overall, the tone leans more towards natural and relaxed than formal or pedantic. Since RISD is a leader, our general (non-academic) content should project confidence and emphasize the positive without sounding elitist or self-congratulatory.

That said, establishing a clear voice is one of the most elusive aspects of writing. It’s not about the use of adjectives or the command of the relative pronoun, but rather the impression the writer makes through the selection and sequencing of words and thoughts. It’s also about the sound, the rhythm and the pacing of the message.

When writing for and about RISD, strive to write with energy, focus and purpose, along with precision and accuracy. Keep your text clean: free of misspelled words, incomplete sentences and awkward syntax. Avoid clichés and empty words or phrases.

Much like creativity, these aspects of writing can’t be taught as much as they can be nurtured and developed. The following tips are offered as guidance to help hone your messages.

Address your audience directly

The second-person direct address (you) is recommended when trying to engage an audience:

You will explore your natural surroundings as you discover new materials...

This approach is preferred to less personal third-person options such as:

The student will explore her natural surroundings as she discovers new materials…

Students will explore their natural surroundings as they discover new materials...

Or the formal:

no: One can explore one’s surroundings as one discovers new materials...

Adjust as needed

Think of the type of person who will be reading your text. If the primary audience is teenagers (prospective or current students), the tone might be looser than average, but should not be self-consciously trendy. Try for informality without resorting to slang.

Content written for alumni can have more attitude than for, say, museum members, who may expect an intelligent, measured tone, but wouldn’t be averse to a playful one.

In the end, finding the most appropriate tone is a judgment call, but one that should be informed by an understanding of RISD’s objectives and culture.

Consider descriptors like these

When writing about RISD projects, studios and community members, certain words tend to recur. The following nouns and adjectives may be helpful when describing the creative process and/or students, faculty, alumni and what they produce.

inquisitive / curious / intellectually agile / nimble

innovators / problem solvers

driven / passionate / engaged / excited

entrepreneurial / self-directed

willing to take risks / willing to fail / fearless

rigor / rigorous



fun / playful / high-energy

studio-based / hands-on making

inquiry / investigation / experimentation / research

question / challenge assumptions

multidisciplinary / interdisciplinary



transformation / transformative


inspired by complexity

Stay relaxed

A relaxed tone shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a silly or sloppy one. It simply entails choosing words that are more colloquial, such as:

use instead of utilize

before instead of prior to

many instead of a great number of

currently instead of at this point in time

lives in instead of makes his/her home in

more expensive instead of costlier

Watch out for clichés

Avoid stereotyping, unless you’re doing it consciously—to make a point:

Starving artists still exist, but so do starving stockbrokers.

Words and phrases such as:


raise the bar

think outside the box

color outside the lines

strive for excellence

are widely understood but can sound hollow and tend to dull the mind (doesn’t every college share a commitment to excellence?).

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language.... You select what goes in and you decide what stays out.”

John McPhee, from Writing by Omission (in The New Yorker)