General writing guidelines

General writing guidelines

Follow these guidelines to ensure readability and consistency of the OpenStack documentation. In addition to these guidelines, the IBM Style Guide is used. In case of conflicts between the IBM style guide and these guidelines, these pages take precedence.

Use standard English

Use standard United States (U.S.) English throughout all technical publications. When in doubt about the spelling of a word, consult the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the IBM Style Guide.

Write in active voice

In general, write in active voice rather than passive voice. Active voice identifies the agent of action as the subject of the verb — usually the user. Passive voice identifies the recipient (not the source) of the action as the subject of the verb.

Active-voice sentences clarify the performer of an action and are easier to understand than passive-voice sentences. Passive voice is usually less engaging and more complicated than active voice. When you use passive voice, the actions and responses of the software can be difficult to distinguish from those of the user. In addition, passive voice usually requires more words than active voice.

Example of usage

Do not use Use
After the software has been installed, the computer can be started. After you install the software, start the computer.
The Configuration is saved when you click OK. Click OK to save the configuration.
A server is created by you. Create a server.

However, passive voice is acceptable in the following situations:

  • Using active voice sounds like you are blaming the user. For example, you can use passive voice in an error message or troubleshooting content when the active subject is the user.

    Example of usage

    Do not use Use
    If the build fails, you probably omitted the flavor. If the build fails, the flavor might have been omitted.
  • The agent of action is unknown, or you want to de-emphasize the agent of action and emphasize the object on which the action is performed.

    Example of usage

    Do not use Use
    The product, OS, or database returns the messages. The messages are returned [by the database].
  • Recasting the sentence in active voice is wordy or awkward.

    Example of usage

    Do not use Use
    In 2009, engineers developed a software that simplifies the installation. A software that simplifies the installation was developed in 2009.

Use the present simple tense

Users read documentation to perform tasks or gather information. For users, these activities take place in their present, so the present tense is appropriate in most cases. Additionally, the present tense is easier to read than the past or future tense.

Use the future tense only when you need to emphasize that something will occur later (from the users’ perspective).

Example of usage

Do not use Use
The product will prompt you to verify the deletion. After you log in, your account will then begin the verification process. The product prompts you to verify the deletion. After you log in, your account begins the verification process.

Write in second person

Users are more engaged with documentation when you use second person (that is, you address the user as “you”).

Writing in second person has the following advantages:

  • Second person promotes a friendly tone by addressing users directly.
  • Using second person with the imperative mood (in which the subject you is understood) and active voice helps to eliminate wordiness and confusion about who or what initiates an action, especially in procedural steps.
  • Using second person also avoids the use of gender-specific, third-person pronouns such as he, she, his, and hers. If you must use third person, use the pronouns they and their, but ensure that the pronoun matches the referenced noun in number.

Use first person plural pronouns (we, our) judiciously. These pronouns emphasize the writer or OpenStack rather than the user, so before you use them, consider whether second person or imperative mood is more “user-friendly.” However, use “we recommend” rather than “it is recommended” or “OpenStack recommends”.

Also, you can use “we” in the place of OpenStack if necessary.

Do not use first person to avoid naming the product or to avoid using passive voice. If the product is performing the action, use third person (the product as an actor). If you want to de-emphasize the agent of action and emphasize the object on which the action is performed, use passive voice.

The first-person singular pronoun “I” is acceptable in the question part of FAQs and when authors of blogs or signed articles are describing their own actions or opinions.

Do not switch person (point of view) in the same document.

Example of usage

Do not use Use

Creating a server involves specifying a name, flavor, and image.

To create a server, the user specifies a name, flavor, and image.

To create a server, specify a name, a flavor, and image.

To create a server, you specify a name, flavor, and image.

Use appropriate mood

For procedures, use imperative mood.


Start the installation by pressing Enter.

For explanations, use indicative mood.


The script automatically provisions virtual machines with all required settings.

Do not use subjunctive mood.

Example of usage

Do not use Use
If you were to deploy OpenStack… (Implied: but you are not) If you want to deploy OpenStack…

Keep sentences short

Short and simple sentences are easier to read and understand.

Avoid ambiguous titles

Each title should include a clear description of the page’s subject.

Ambiguous Better
Update metadata Update flavor metadata

Also, ensure that you follow the documentation guidelines for titles. For more information, see Titles.

Be clear and concise

Follow the principles of minimalism. If you can describe an idea in one word, do not use two words. Eliminate all redundant modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs.

Write objectively

Do not use humor, jargon, exclamation marks, idioms, metaphors, and other colloquialisms.

Describe the most common use case first

Put the most common case in the main clause and at the beginning of a paragraph or section. You can introduce additional use cases by starting a sentence with “however” or “if”.

Do not humanize inanimate objects

Do not give human characteristics to non-human subjects or objects.

Example of usage

Do not use Use
This guide assumes This guide describes

Write positively

Write in a positive tone. Positive sentences improve readability. Try to avoid the following words as much as possible:

Example of usage

Do not use Use
damage affect
catastrophic serious
bad Use “serious” or add an explanation
fail unable to
kill cancel
fatal serious
destroy remove
wrong incorrect, inconsistent

Avoid prepositions at the end of sentences

As much as possible, avoid trailing prepositions in sentences by avoiding phrasal verbs.

Example of usage

Ambiguous Better
The image registration window will open up. The image registration window opens.

To fix the verb-preposition constructions, replace them with active verbs.

Example of usage

Ambiguous Better
written up composed
pop up appear

Do not overuse this, that, these, and it

Use these pronouns sparingly. Overuse contributes to readers’ confusion. To fix the ambiguity, rephrase the sentence.

Example of usage

Ambiguous Better
The monitoring system should perform regular checks to verify that the Ceph cluster is healthy. This can be achieved using the Ceph health command. The monitoring system performs regular checks to ensure the Ceph cluster is functioning correctly. Use the ceph health command to run a health check.

You can also fix the ambiguity by placing a noun modifier immediately after the pronoun.

Do not split infinitives

Do not place modifiers between “to” and the verb. Typically, placing an adverb or an adjective between “to” and a verb adds ambiguity to a sentence.

However, in some cases it is acceptable.


To significantly improve…

Avoid personification

Do not express your fears or feelings in technical writing. Avoid the adverbs such as “probably”, “hopefully”, “basically”, and so on.

Do not use contractions

Generally, do not contract the words.

Example of usage

Do not use Use
can’t cannot
don’t do not

Eliminate needless politeness

Do not use “please” and “thank you” in technical documentation.

Use consistent terminology

Use consistent terms across OpenStack content. Avoid multiple variations or spellings to refer to the same service, function, UI element, and so on.

Example of usage

Do not use Use
Firewall as a service Firewall-as-a-Service
active-active active/active
module service

If you suspect the subject was previously described, search the OpenStack documentation and look for a precedence.

Use spelling and grammar checking tools

Run text through spelling and grammar checking tools, if available. Correcting mistakes, especially to larger sections of new content, helps eliminate rework later.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

Except where otherwise noted, this document is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. See all OpenStack Legal Documents.