Walking the talk: putting together the GOV.AU Content Style Guide

GOV.AU has released a draft version of the GOV.AU Content Style Guide for open discussion across government. Content designers Libby Varcoe and Trisha Treanor explain how the guide was put together and why they hope that everyone has a strong opinion.

Three people sitting at a desk in discussion.
Caption: We challenged each other to find a clearer, simpler way and argued the point for accessibility

To say that putting together a future-ready content style guide for GOV.AU felt like a slightly daunting task is an understatement. What format should we follow — tried and tested or new and unproven? What are our international peers doing in this space? What about all the great Australian style guides that have preceded us?

But then we took a deep breath and wrote down our 3 favourite DTO words: simpler, clearer, faster.

We realised that the GOV.AU Content Style Guide needed to be something that helped us practise what we preach (but without the preachy bit).

We checked with our peers

One of the first things we did before we started was ask our peers across government what they think a modern style guide should look like. We sent out a survey and 352 people responded.

There was a common theme. Give us fast access, keep it up-to-date, make it easy to understand and give us definitive examples.

We listened closely and started to design with these points in mind.

Easy to use

Taking inspiration from our GOV.UK colleagues we decided not to reinvent the wheel. We decided on an A to Z list of topics and some web writing guidance for those who want to read more. We adopted a pattern for each entry: a minimal, precise explanation, an example to explain where possible and cross-links to any similar items.

Direct and simple to understand

As writers know, the big challenge is to question every word that gets in the way of plain English and avoid any kind of jargon. We felt very conscious of how government language often makes people disconnect so we pushed ourselves to find another way to say things. We also tried to include examples that are unambiguous. We plan to add more of these over time.

Accessibility had to rule

Apart from plain English, accessibility emerged as a strong influence and helped us argue the point with each other on behalf of the user. We were reminded that when our language is accessible, everyone benefits — even high-ability users. And ironically that when you make content accessible, it becomes web-friendly too.

It will never be finished

We’ve released this draft because we know early feedback will help us make it better. Sending out a draft is a confronting, awkward thing to do as writers. But we think our discomfort is worth it. We want to incorporate your comments and improvements, iterate regularly and make things better.

We plan to keep doing this even once it’s ‘live’. So share your opinion with us please. We really want to know what you think. We’ve made a start—it’s minimal on purpose, though we have more topics planned.

Final thing. Does anyone actually care about a style guide?

Yes, they do. For many writers and editors, style guides are the holy grail of best practice and held in high-regard. A lot of us have a favourite one, stuffed dog-eared in our work-bag (we content people are like that).

But the truth is, not enough people in government who create content, read their department’s style guide - and we’re not talking about people who have writer, editor or web attached to their role.

Yet a style guide is probably one of the most powerful documents in government. It helps us shape government’s voice, project consistency, convey trust, communicate clearly and not look silly by putting apostrophes in the wrong places (among many other things).

We would love more people to read the style guide and our main hope for creating a simpler, clearer, faster offering is that more people will.

Join the Content Design in Government Group to see the early release of the guide.