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Writing content for everyone

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility, Content design

I work as a content designer on the Digital Marketplace and for over a year now, I’ve also been working as a volunteer in adult literacy classes. I’ve been using my experiences in the classroom to help me write simpler, more accessible content.

Users with low literacy

Most of the students I work with fell out of a formal education system early. They face different challenges including dyslexia, poor vision and previously undiagnosed learning difficulties. Some of them have simply never found a learning environment that met their needs before.

The impact of not being able to read and write well means they can struggle to find work, organise accommodation, and get social support when they need it. They’re some of the people who depend on government services the most so understanding their needs is really important.

It can be hard to find the right service

It’s worth remembering the hoops people often have to jump through before they even come to use a service. It took me a long time to find a literacy lesson I could work in. I searched the internet, phoned local volunteering centres, looked at teaching courses, and eventually found a local college where I could help. I have a high level of literacy but people with lower literacy levels would have to be very motivated to find the same course.

Content designers need to remember that sometimes users have to do a lot of stressful work before they even reach their service. It’s our job to make sure that finding the service is as easy as possible. That means using words and phrases that users are likely to search for.

Confidence is fragile

It takes a lot to come to adult literacy lessons and ask for help so building up confidence is important. Asking a student to read content that’s written in long, complicated sentences can shake their confidence and make them quickly give up on a task. Users of government services are no different. Keeping content short, clear, and simple can help them use a service without getting discouraged.

Less is more

Sometimes content writers are asked to include as much detail as possible to make sure every angle has been covered. This can be a disaster for users with low literacy who can struggle to:

  • identify the main points in large blocks of text
  • concentrate on reading for long periods of time
  • retain the information they’re reading as they read it

You can help people of all literacy levels understand what they need to know by:

  • only including content that meets a specific user need
  • organising information into manageable chunks
  • using bullet points to break up long lists

Punctuation can slow people down

When people have to use a government service online, it’s unlikely to be the focal point of their day. Content designers must write for quick and easy reading.

We have to remember that it can be hard to read things like:

  • capital letters
  • contractions, eg ‘would’ve’
  • apostrophes

Readers with low literacy often don’t recognise the meaning of certain types of punctuation at a glance, eg an apostrophe showing possession. Even readers with higher literacy levels can find that reading words all in capitals slows them down. Using common words and simple sentence structures can have a big impact on reading speed.

Be direct

When people are concentrating on reading and understanding each word, there’s no room for subtle implications. If someone has to do something to use a service, you can’t hint at it, you have to tell them quickly and clearly. Using phrases like ‘you must’ can help users understand when there’s a step they have to follow.

Accessible and inclusive content

At GDS, we always try to design for the least experienced user so no one is excluded from understanding and using a service. We also try to apply the same principle to users with low literacy. By writing for all literacy levels, it means more people can use the government services they depend on.

Low literacy isn’t something that only affects a few people. Around 10% of the UK population has some degree of dyslexia according to the British Dyslexia Association. This means it’s likely that all government services have a number of dyslexic users. If a service wasn’t written with them in mind, it’s probably not meeting user needs. That’s why writing accessible, inclusive copy shouldn’t be an optional approach to writing content. It should be best practice.

Read the GOV.UK guidance on content design and how to write well for your audience. Find out more about adult literacy on the Literacy Trust and Reading Agency websites.

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  1. Comment by Lucy Janes posted on

    HI Keith,

    Thanks for responding my question so fully - very interesting.

    I fully appreciate that having information buried in a video and not available to scan on the page is frustrating (I find that myself and get very annoyed when there isn't a transcript available to read instead!). I guess I was thinking of using different formats as a back-up, not a replacement for the text. So to reinforce and explain a concept in a different way. Obviously though this is an investment of staff time and resources, to reconfigure content that already exists.

    Kind regards

  2. Comment by Benji Portwin posted on

    Really nice piece, will be printing "Less is More" and putting it on our team wall!

  3. Comment by Chris Felton posted on

    "Should of"? Sorry Stephen Proctor, you are wrong there. That is a widespread mistake that really irritates purists (like me, I admit). It comes from the contraction of 'should have' to 'should've' which people then mishear as 'should of'. For that reason I would agree that is one contraction that should not happen. Think about it: "I have eaten that egg/I should have eaten that egg", or "I of eaten that egg/I should of eaten that egg."

    It's true that screenreaders pronounce eg as egg, but if you punctuate it properly as e.g. it is pronounced correctly. And on your final point, a list of examples is not always obviously just examples. Someone may think that it is the full list of available options. Using i.e. before it or etc. afterwards tells the reader that there are more options.

    On the main subject, though: good blog and points well worth publicising.

  4. Comment by Steven Heywood posted on

    Good points, thanks. Just two add-ons:

    "One voice" and one-size-fits-all doesn't always work for the customer. Sometimes you do have to have a different way of talking to different audiences. For instance, a significant proportion of public library customers are pre-teen children but most English public library web pages speak to the Corporate Model Council Taxpayer.

    Typography can be surprisingly important. Using bottom-weighted fonts makes a positive difference to the readability for many readers, particularly those with dyslexia and similar problems.

  5. Comment by Neil posted on

    Be jargon free, and drive specifics on a simple but credible basis

  6. Comment by Natalie Shaw posted on

    Awesome post!

  7. Comment by Estelle Bloom posted on

    Totally agree with the points in the blog: as someone who has worked with people with learning disabilities for many years, and as a producer of plain English and easy read information, I'm always really keen to point out the significance of inaccessible information and the barriers it places in people's way. So jargon words, for example, can be both hard to understand and read, which can interrupt someone's flow and throw them completely off course. Incidentally, when I've consulted with the public on how they like their information, people universally describe accessible information: short, to the point, jargon-free and text broken up into chunks. So, clear, accessible information benefits, and is welcommed by, everyone, not just people with communication difficulties.

  8. Comment by Lucy Janes posted on


    Please can you tell me whether you look at presenting content in other fomats - ie video, recordings, images, animations - that might help to explain something in a slightly less word-heavy way? Appreciate it's not feasible for everything including complex processes or forms, and has multimedia has its own accessibility issues but I'd be interested in your thoughts or experiences with using other formats to address literacy issues.

    Thank you

    • Replies to Lucy Janes>

      Comment by Keith Emmerson posted on

      Hi Lucy,

      We don't encourage the use of videos or animations on GOV.UK as a tool for explanation.

      When writing for the general public, we should be able to explain concepts or processes in a clear and concise way - making the need for a video redundant. If we can't do that, we consider it a failure. That's either a failure on our part to do the hard work to put something in plain English, or the process itself is too complicated.

      Videos do have their place of course. This is especially true when the value of the content is in the individual's style or manner of presenting, rather than what the detail of the information is. An example of that might be a TV marketing campaign, or a pre-roll advert on YouTube.

      We've found that videos can frustrate users - it's difficult to find the information you want quickly when you can't scan down a page.
      They're also expensive and slower to produce, and the same is true of the process to update them.

      More often than not, user journeys are not fully considered. There are times when videos have been placed at the bottom of GOV.UK pages where the call to action is to read the page the user just read, creating a loop.

      I hope that goes some way to answering your question.

  9. Comment by Annoyed posted on

    Best practice is optional. Perhaps you meant to say writing accessible inclusive content should be mandatory where apropriate?

    • Replies to Annoyed>

      Comment by Roz Strachan posted on

      Hi there,

      You're quite right. 'Best practice' isn't strong enough. I think that writing accessible, inclusive content should always be mandatory.

  10. Comment by Donna posted on

    What do you mean by "It took me a long time to find a literacy lesson I could work in" ? I've read this several times and I still don't understand it. Do you mean "It took me a long time to find a way I could help teach literacy to other adults" ?

    • Replies to Donna>

      Comment by Roz Strachan posted on

      Hi Donna,

      Yes. That's what I meant. I wanted to teach in group literacy lessons and had to do quite a lot of research before I found one in the area - let alone one that was looking for volunteers!

  11. Comment by Steven Proctor posted on

    This is a great article filled with things to think about when writing for people of different reading abilities. I, like Roz, prefer to use contractions to sound natural, but I'm not writing something for me. I'm writing for people of all reading abilities.

    Does everyone understand contractions? What about people who have English as a second language, a 9 year old reading age, dyslexia or learning difficulties?

    I've seen people of all reading abilities struggle to read and understand a lot of contractions like 'isn't', 'can't', 'don't', 'didn't', 'won't', 'wouldn't', 'couldn't', 'we'll', 'you'll' and 'who's'. I've also seen content designers write 'should've' when they meant 'should of'.

    'eg', 'etc' and 'ie' should be considered as part of inclusive and accessible content because a lot of readers don't understand them. Some writers are unsure what they mean and use eg when they mean ie, and ie when they mean eg, so why should they expect their readers to understand them? Some screen readers read 'eg' as 'egg'! This is easy to avoid.

    The GOV.UK style guide says "User testing has shown that some people are not familiar with abbreviations such as eg, so consider your audience before abbreviating."

    Perhaps the guide should be getting people to be clearer and use 'for example' or 'like', 'that is' or 'specifically', or 'and so on'. (Personally, I would never use 'etc' or 'and so on' because they are too vague. They often come at the end of a list of examples, which by definition is not an exhaustive list so the etc is unnecessary.)

  12. Comment by Joanne Schofield posted on

    Great blog Roz.

    Just a note on the contractions argument: I'm working on the Personal Independence Payment service and we've found that people with learning difficulties sometimes do not understand negative contractions - they need the 'not' to understand what's being said.

    This is confirmed in guidance for accessible writing across a few websites for people with learning disabilities, for example the ‘How to make information accessible' at

    This might be something we could research further with GDS especially if we're potentially compromising understanding for style?

    • Replies to Joanne Schofield>

      Comment by Clare posted on

      Good point. I'm currently working on content and accessibility for the new OLCS application process so would definitely be interested to follow any further GDS research.

  13. Comment by D Pollard posted on

    Well done for persevering & finding a place to teach... - whoever you are teaching, is fortunate to have your help...

  14. Comment by LJ Franklin posted on

    Good points ^^ A number of corporate branding guidelines also advocate the use of contractions - it is designed to make the reader more engaged and to demonstrate a 'friendly' attitude in the writer. The 'One Voice' message.

    That said, I still use punctuation and fully written words in emails, copy and text messages, so I am not a fan of the contraction in any form of formal text...

  15. Comment by Jo T posted on

    Just one point I have picked up on...

    In your blog you say that "We have to remember that it can be hard to read things like... contractions (eg ‘would’ve’)..." However, on the 'Writing for GOV.UK' page the stance is that "You should use contractions (eg can’t)..."

    Personally, I prefer not to use contractions on a web page, but would love to hear others' thoughts...

    • Replies to Jo T>

      Comment by Roz Strachan posted on

      Hi Jo,

      I prefer to use contractions like 'can't' and 'you'll'. They cut 2 syllables to 1 and make the tone of the content seem simpler and less forbidding. 'Would've' and 'could've' are particularly awkward because they combine lots of consonants that don't normally sit together. The number of syllables stays the same too. Having said that, I've seen people in lessons struggle with all sorts of contractions.

      • Replies to Roz Strachan>

        Comment by Jo T posted on

        Good point about the number of syllables - I hadn't thought of it in that way. Maybe that point could be expanded on the 'Writing for GOV.UK' page?

      • Replies to Roz Strachan>

        Comment by Clare posted on

        Despite official guidelines, I've often found that using contractions has to be a matter of judgement. This applies to all contractions, not just multi-consonant ones like 'would've'. For example, the meanings of sentences such as "Who will carry out the safety inspections?" seem to be much easier to access without the use of a contraction. Reading the sentence out loud is a big help in determining which path to take.

      • Replies to Roz Strachan>

        Comment by Joe Lanman posted on

        In user research for GOV.UK Verify, we've seen people miss the "not" in contractions like "shouldn't" or "can't" - even if they had good reading skills. Changing to the longer form "can not" was successful - people were much more likely to see the important "not" in the sentence. I'd be in favour of changing our guidance to prevent most contractions.

  16. Comment by Jo T posted on

    A great argument to use when services are desperately holding on to their jargon and corporate speak! 🙂

  17. Comment by Rosie Cowling posted on

    Love this! <3

  18. Comment by Andy McAleer posted on

    A nice article. The point about punctuation is well made. As a professional writer, I'd not appreciated that.

  19. Comment by mairi macleod posted on

    Excellent blog - one of the best I've read for some time. Should be required reading for everyone before they are allowed to write or design anything!