https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2012/07/02/gov-uk-editorial-style-guide/

GOV.UK editorial style guide

Today marks the launch of the alpha release of the GOV.UK editorial style guide. Sarah Richards, Content Design Lead on the Delivery team explains why this is important and how it has and will develop and evolve.

When writing for GOV.UK, we aim to make government web information as easy as possible to understand. Consistent standards are vital, so we have developed an editorial style guide setting the rules for the tone, language and presentation of all content.

You – our users – inform this style guide;  it’s yours. We base our decisions on the language and reading behaviour you use. So now is a good time to tell us what you think – please post your comments below.

One size still doesn’t fit all

GOV.UK will cater for varied audiences trying to complete a wide range of tasks. For example:

  • citizen and business-related tasks (we label this ‘mainstream’ content) – like apply for a tax disc or find out about redundancy rights
  • research – the ‘Inside Government’ part of the site will take you through the inner workings of government: the policies, consultations and publications

We have a common guide for the whole of GOV.UK, covering the basics for anything under the GOV.UK url. This gives us a consistent feel across the whole site.

It includes how to:

  • deal with acronyms and abbreviations for accessibility
  • make it really obvious when a user ‘must’ do something (legal language)
  • talk to multiple audiences within a single topic

But we also have smaller parts to the guide that are audience specific.

Decisions, decisions…

Arguments about points of style are decided on a basic principle: “what does the user say?”

We find out what users want and the vocabulary they are using. Then we try it out.

For example, we spell out acronyms the first time we use them on every page. Then we use an abbreviation tag in the HTML to spell out the acronym for any other instance on the page. This came from user testing we did earlier this year on the citizen-facing GOV.UK content.  We know that users can and will arrive anywhere on GOV.UK – search engines provide “deep links” into the content of websites – so the acronym has to make sense with little or no context.

We don’t make style decisions on a whim. Although, if there is no evidence one way or another, we go with gut-feeling and add it to the ‘to be tested’ list.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” Albert Einstein

The style is about writing clearly, concisely and without jargon. Everyone can benefit from simplicity. Some people have previously seen this as ‘dumbing down’ but being open and accessible to everyone isn’t ‘dumb’ – it’s our responsibility.

What next?

This document will evolve – and has done so even in the past couple of days as we’ve been preparing it for public release. For instance, we’ve made changes to the guide because of testing results on the recent Inside Government beta. But the key message is that we are also still defining formats and styles so you will see changes regularly over the next few months. So please take a look and let us know what you think either via comments below or by emailing gds-blog@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk.

31 comments

  1. Chris Lee

    I am puzzled as to why we are having an ‘alpha’ release and that we have had an Inside Government Beta. What does this mean?

    Reply
    • Sarah Richards

      Hello,
      It’s just the first release of the style – it has changed as we have learned from the Beta projects but now we think it is ready to have its first iteration. There will be others. :)

      Reply
  2. Helen Olsen

    From a public service user’s perspective I like the guide, it would be great to have consistent language across all parts of public services. But I have one bug-bear that I would like to put forward for consideration: I don’t want anyone to ‘assist’ me, I want someone to ‘help’ me. In conversation people ask for ‘help’, not ‘assistance’ (unless it is roadside recovery…).

    One of my children is disabled, so I have interactions with many public services: health, education, social services/other council services. Whilst I see the word ‘assist’ in many public sector publications I have never had a social worker offer to ‘assist’ me, or a care worker ask my son if he wants ‘assistance’. To help me, yes; if he would like help, yes, but does anyone really use the word ‘assist’ in real life interactions?

    Personally I would be eternally grateful if you could ban the word ‘assist’ from government vocabulary on the grounds of plain English: the word ‘help’ is more commonly used in conversation, it is also a shorter word :-)

    Reply
    • Sarah Richards

      I agree, Helen. You are quite right. We can’t exactly ban a word but I think we will banish it. Will that do?

      Reply
      • helenolsen

        That would be perfect Sarah! :)

        Reply
  3. John Ploughman

    Congratulations on putting this together.

    It’s really great to see that a lot of this is common sense. It’s more flexible than some of the previous style guides for Directgov and the like.

    Most importantly, it’s *so* user-centred and it’s going to make things better.

    Seeing this line really cheered me up:

    “Use of plain English is mandatory for all sections of the site – all audiences should understand our content; this isn’t ‘dumbing down’, this is opening up government information to all.”

    Reply
    • Sarah Richards

      Thanks, John. Working with people like you and your team makes this easier. Keep in touch though – you are testing this so we want to know if it works.

      Reply
  4. Andy Key

    (1) What’s the difference between “Style Points” (second main heading) and “Points of Style” (third main heading)?

    (2) Addressing the user (mainstream): It seems a bit odd to use “you” for the user but not use “we” for the government. It will lead to some contorted wording and will work against the aim of a “conversational” style.

    (3) Americanisms: No problem with you recommending standardisation on “-ise”, but “-ize” isn’t an Americanism as such. In most cases it’s a valid British English spelling (favoured by Cambridge University amongst others).

    (4) Capitalisation: Can I put in a plea for a mention of “Internet” here? There is only one Internet (while as any good network techie will tell you, there are many thousands of internets). Ditto for “Web”.

    (5) Capitalisation/geography: Compass points *should* be capitalised when part of the name of a regional entity – eg the European Parliament’s South East England constituency, or Tourism South East.

    (6) Legal language: this section twice uses “ie” where it should be using “eg”. (Arguably it should be using “for example” anyway!)

    (7) Singular, plural and contractions: You write, “Avoid using ‘should’ve’, ‘should’ve’, ‘should’ve’ etc.” You really don’t like “should’ve”, do you? :-)

    (8) The crib sheet says “£186m (not million)”, but the Points of Style section says “Always use million in money… eg £138 million.”

    (9) General points: It would make commenting much easier if you numbered the sections. There doesn’t seem to be any coherent structure to the guide, which will make it hard to refer to – it feels like someone copied it down from a bunch of post-its. I expect that will improve in later drafts. Also your stylesheet doesn’t work properly on IE7 – ‘s are smaller than the body text – making it hard to read for those of us stuck on IE7 (quite a lot of local and central gov’t people).

    Reply
    • Sarah Richards

      You. Are. Brilliant.

      Thanks for all your comments. I have made some updates and we are clearly going to have to look into the geographical style again.

      Thanks

      Reply
  5. Tom Loosemore

    I fear “DON’T USE BLOCK CAPITALS FOR LARGE AMOUNTS OF TEXT AS IT IS QUITE HARD TO READ.” fails conform to the requirement to use contractions.

    It should read “DON’T USE BLOCK CAPITALS FOR LARGE AMOUNTS OF TEXT AS IT’S QUITE HARD TO READ.”

    I would also like a coherent numbering scheme, so I can lambast such abuses with a suitably quasi-legalistic flourish.

    Reply
    • Andy Key

      SPEAK UP, I CAN’T HEAR YOU. :-) In my defence, a style guide is all about attention to detail, so it does need to get its own details right.

      Reply
    • Sarah Richards

      YOU WILL SEE THIS CHANGE VERY SOON. :)

      We will look at numbering and the layout etc soon. As you saw yesterday, we’ve all been a bit busy on the latest release but I’ll see what we can do asap.

      Reply
  6. Jon

    Is there a reason why South Wales is treated differently to the East End? Is this a London English style guide or is this due to unfamiliarity? I find it difficult to separate the two, but this may be my oversight.
    Also, I do think theres a case for ‘eg’ and ‘ie’ not to be used in common language by the government. If you want to provide and example or a specific sample then you should take the time and words to do this, simply for the reasons of including it in the first place. A good start though- you’ll have to make everyone use it now though!! :)

    Reply
    • baragouiner

      I was thinking that it might have something to do with the definite article – you always get ‘the’ before East End / West End / Middle East but not before south Wales / north-east Scotland but in the same section of the Guide you get the north, the south-west, etc. So I don’t know!
      Just on that, I’d ask for clarity around use of the north / the south-west as they (nearly always) mean the north of England or the south-west of England but are not spelt out as such. Wales has its own north (and I assume Scotland does too!). The same goes for the south-west. There are road signs in mid Wales for ‘The Midlands’ translated as ‘Canolbarth Lloegr’ = English Midlands!
      The Guide includes the south of England but just the north – for consistency I’d argue for the north of England / the south-west of England unless of course you mean northern Britain / south-western Britain.

      Reply
    • Andy Key

      I was thinking about the ‘South Wales’ question so I made use of the council’s online library facilities:

      “east, eastern, easterly – adjectives. What is said here applies equally to north, south, and west, and their corresponding forms. East denotes physical position (on the east side of town) and is spelt with a capital initial (East) when forming part of a recognized name (New York’s East Side)…”

      [Source: Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage. Ed. Robert Allen. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Hampshire County Council. 6 July 2012 ]

      Note the word “recognized” – it doesn’t have to be an official name for a region. I think the style guide should follow Fowler’s guidance on this.

      Reply
  7. Jo Allen

    Regarding: “do not let caveats dictate unwieldy grammar – eg say ‘You can’ rather than ‘You may be able to’” but to me ‘you can’ means that it is entirely possible and ‘you may be able to’ means ‘there’s a chance I can but it’s not set in stone’.

    Reply
  8. Ken Clayton

    I like what I’ve read so far and particularly the fact that this page doesn’t say anything about ‘engaging the skateholders’ or other such management consultant clap trap. It looks very much as if you’ve looked at the style guides that various newspapers and magazines have published. Perhaps it would be worth running this guide in alphabetical order in the way Guardian Style is presented. It’s also obvious that even the person who has written the guide is still getting used to the rules (which is to be expected) but congratulations on trying to get the government to speak plain English to the public.

    Reply
  9. baragouiner

    “government – never Government, even when referring to the elected administration”

    As there are four national governments in the UK, an identifier would be helpful ie “the UK government…”

    Reply
  10. Graham Lee

    Very useful guide – with some excellent pointers. Agree with points above that navigability could be easier. Splitting it into Mainstream/Inside Government could also distract from style points that apply across the site.

    (Incidentally, caps point is undermined slightly by name of site – GOV.UK – and that of the sub-domain – Inside Government, with a capital ‘G’.)

    It would also be handy to have indications of word-limits in reference to avoiding ‘long sentences’. 26 words may be just about ok, but there’s rarely any justification for 30-40 word sentences. Some ‘quick’ formats such as answers are also occasionally too long (anything longer than 100-150 words tops is pushing it).

    Testing on the Beta also showed that users found it hard to read large blocks of text – so paragraphs should also be short, to improve scannability.

    Have we done any testing on internal links? Sometimes there are lot on one page – not sure if they distract from readability. They’re obviously ok if they take the user somewhere useful and they’re not overused.

    Plain English – it would be handy to have a table containing alternatives for commonly-used waffle in government.

    The ‘be concise’ section seems a bit repetitive (“clear and concise, brisk but not terse…”, etc).

    Acronyms – I’d go further and say to avoid coining new acronyms/initialisms, and not use ones with which users will be unfamiliar. It’s often better to refer to a term from the full name or title as shorthand – such as ‘the regulations’ for ‘Environmental Information Regulations’, instead of ‘EIRs’. This would make the text more readable, rather than littering the page with a cryptic Alphabetti Spaghetti code, which the reader will have to mentally translate to piece together the meaning of each sentence.

    We should also be careful to avoid silly-sounding acronyms like ‘WEEE’, or ones that are usually associated with another term (ahem). I also don’t like the reference to making “an FOI [eff-oh-eye] request”; better to spell this out and refer afterwards to the ‘request’.

    We could do with a clearer steer on whether to use ‘eg’, ‘etc’ and ‘ie’, on the basis of how these are used and understood.

    Geography – presumably official English regions are proper nouns and so should be capped up – eg East Midlands.

    Dates – ‘tax year’ sounds spot on. Is there guidance for differentiating between financial and calendar years over different time-spans: eg calendar year 2011-12 or financial year 2011/12 (or academic years…)? Not sure about answer to this, but it’s frustrating that parts of government can be inconsistent.

    Dashes and hyphens seem to be slightly mixed up in style guide, at least in the dreaded IE7. Is there a policy on em and en dashes? Presumably dashes should be used sparingly, to avoid “long sentences with complicated sub-clauses”.

    Haven’t really looked at separate guide for ‘Inside Government’, but the large number of mandatory and option fields in the guidance for policy pages will encourage longwindedness, as illustrated in the examples provided.

    I notice there’s nothing on specialist content, where there will be need for more jargon, even if the same principles regarding the ‘mandatory’ use of plain English will still apply.

    Reply
  11. John Turnbull

    We should retain the distinction between “such as” and “like” – it’s useful. Grammar Girl explains it well: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/like-versus-such-as.aspx

    Contractions should be used where appropriate, but sometimes “it is” reads better than “it’s”, “we have” better than we’ve” etc. It’s about rhythym, I think: how does it sound when read aloud?

    And I agree with Andy that “should’ve” (or “could’ve” or “would’ve”) is never good.

    Reply
  12. Learning from user testing | Government Digital Service

    [...] used and the lay-out of the content. So we’ll be continuing to write more content using the Style Guide and formats that we’ve [...]

    Reply
  13. Keith Prust

    I’d like to understand the thinking behind using the present continuous tense for policy titles in Inside Government (for example “Setting up a national careers service” and “Reforming higher education and student finance”). This seems to conflict with best practice usability.

    Usability research suggests that when scanning a list of links people only tend to focus on the first few words for each item. Usability expert Jacob Nielsen goes as far at to suggest that “users typically see about 2 words for most list items” (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/nanocontent.html).

    This means that the most important words for the user should be among the first few words in the link or the title. So in the first example above, the key words are “national careers service”. The addition of “setting up” at the beginning of the title is superfluous from the user’s point of view. It will make it harder for them to find the content they are looking for when scanning a list.

    This GOV.UK style guideline could result in long lists of policy links, each beginning with words such as “reforming” and “delivering” rather than key words that the user will be searching for.

    I support writing content of policy pages so it answers the question “what are we doing?”, but I don’t think using this style for headings and links will be helpful for the user.

    Reply
  14. Sara Head

    Great to see a style guide taking shape for this service, and some really interesting and helpful comments made so far. I just want to give my wholehearted approval to the suggestion to make it in alphabetical order. My other suggestions are:
    1.
    It seems a lot of hard work to start it from scratch – there are many established, excellent style guides which could be used as a foundation, then add the gov.uk issues as extra points in the guide.
    2.
    Many of the people using this document would find it very helpful to have a printable version so they can print it out and refer to it. We made our style guide into a PDF (not a web page) for this reason.
    3.
    We capitalise the official government regions, so North West England, but the north west highlands. It is one of those that always needs quite a lot of thought!
    Sara

    Reply
  15. Danny Chapman

    How did this turn out? Is there a definitive, finished version?

    Reply
    • Sarah Richards

      Hello,
      This is the version all content designers are using for GOV.UK now. We will be releasing an update fairly soon – it will have extra guidance for some of the new Inside Government formats.

      It’s unlikely there will ever be a definitive, finished version. Every time we see testing or change anything on GOV.UK, we update the guide. It is as definitive as it can be…. for today :)

      Sarah

      Reply
      • Football Manager

        Sarah,

        Apologies for the delayed reply, thanks for the response and the update!

        Will be keeping my eye out for the update.

        Danny

        Reply
  16. Paul Howarth

    A message for Sarah Richards, Content Design Lead on the *Delivery* team – I thought you said only pizzas, post and services are delivered? – If your team does delivery then I’ll like a margherita. Thanks.

    Reply
  17. Verbal Refuse (@verbalrefuse)

    Sarah, I’ve written a post on my Verbal Refuse blog (www.verbalrefuse.com) about the style guide. Have a read and see if you want to recommend the blog to fellow officials.

    Reply
  18. Chris Davies

    Pet hates

    “going forward” – which other direction do you think time travels?

    ” Consult with Stakeholder” – why do we have to ask Van Helsing’s assistant?

    Reply
  19. Damien

    Thank you for sharing a “simplified” version of your Style Guide design process.
    Where could I find a more “detailed” description of your processes?
    I’m especially interested in learning about your decision making process, like how you built the Plain English list.

    Reply
  20. timothypcooperTimothy Cooper

    In 1.3, second paragraph, third bullet, you say “use Google Insights”. This is no longer possible. Google Insights was closed on 27 September 2012 and merged into Google Trends.

    Reply

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