Reimagining the Style Manual

Libby Varcoe

Imagine a world where all government information — from ministerial briefs to the instructions on a screen  — was simple, clear and easy to read. With the Discovery and Alpha for the Australian Government Style Manual now complete, this dream is now moving into a Beta reality.

7 Style Manual editions

In our ideal future state, consistency of house style would be the norm (no more arguments about ‘program’ or ‘programme’). Clear written communication would be valued and personal preference wouldn’t be an option because there’d be one credible ‘source of truth’ that stated the rules and provided the evidence for why.

This vision isn’t new. In 1964, the Erwin Committee parliamentary inquiry that resulted in the first Australian Government Style Manual had hoped that ‘a fresh and enlightened approach to the format and style of all publications’ would result, and it believed that: 

‘there should be a determined drive in respect of non-parliamentary publications to break away from the “official” approach … which had cramped their style so often in the past.’ (Parliamentary and Government Publications, Report from the Joint Select Committee (Erwin Committee), Clause 80, page 15).

The most recent edition of the Style Manual was the 6th edition, published in 2002. Fast forward to our digital world of fast publishing and the need for the Style Manual is greater than ever. It also comes with a nice cost-saving to government. A report prepared by the Department of Finance in 2015 costed the potential savings to be between $15.8M and $39.5M based on the then figure of 79 agencies using the same source, instead of producing their own - noting that most agencies would still need to produce their own style sheets to accommodate common terms.

Guided by user research

Charged with the task of creating the first ever digital edition, and overseeing new content development for the 7th edition, the DTA has been working hard to make sure the Style Manual is a useful tool for Australian Public Servants and for those who write and edit government information. We also know the Style Manual is used as a reference text by some universities and some in the private sector and we take this responsibility very seriously.

To help us better understand our users’ needs, we went into the field to conduct research with people working in government to understand how they use it, why they use it, and which dog-eared pages they liked the most. We also spoke to professional editors who work for government, trainers and also public servants who didn’t use it (but probably should).

We learned a lot.

  • For most people, black and white rules plus examples provide sufficient evidence but some users (a group we identified as language professionals) want more to further support their case when they find themselves in an argument over style. This additional information is also needed to support the credibility of the Style Manual when their own opinions conflict with the Style Manual’s recommendation. 
  • For many users, the Style Manual has been a safety net and a companion. It has helped them to drive the case for quality and consistency.
  • Copies of the Style Manual are rare in most departments which presents a barrier to awareness and usage, especially for younger users.
  • Missing or outdated content, for digital topics in particular, was a major reason for not using the Style Manual.  Departmental style guides have increased in number and size to compensate.
  • We found strong expectations for a digital version.
  • Many people expressed personal style preferences (often from the very top levels of government) as a major cause of frustration and time-wastage across the public service. ‘Basically all my life is arguing with people about whether there should be a capital letter.’

Prototyping our ideas

During the Alpha stage we were able to visualise our findings to create a prototype for what a digital version of the Style Manual could look like. We explored how the content could be modelled to make sense to our different user types, with a big emphasis on making sure we are fiercely protecting the quality and authority of this national treasure while making the user’s experience meaningful.

We looked at what the information architecture might include and explored usage metrics so we can measure the success of the product going forward.

With the digital ‘nuts and bolts’ thinking now done, much of the work completed in Alpha will accelerate our next steps as we move into Beta

We’re ready for content development

We are very excited to announce that we are now developing a tender that will be released in early 2019. We’re looking for specialists who have:

  • demonstrated knowledge of Australian Government style and standards, and current Australian usage
  • track record in editing or producing works of a similar nature
  • experience in delivering products that involve writing, information design, editing, reviews and responses, proofreading and indexing

Organisations and interested parties can register their interest in applying for this tender by emailing stylemanual@digital.gov.au. We will be sending out drafts of the requirements and supporting material in early 2019 with the goal of publishing the digital version of the Style Manual by the end of 2019.
 

Libby Varcoe is the Style Manual Product Manager and Head of Content (co-Lab)