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Online writing

Style guide for digital content

This guide provides advice on how to write content for users of services in scope of the Digital Service Standard. It may also be helpful for internal communication channels, such as an intranet, however it is written with external service content in mind.

Why must I?

Digital services need clear and easy-to-understand content to help people find and use the information they require. By writing in plain English and using consistent spelling, grammar, tone and structure we make services easier to use. Clear content also means it’s easier for people to keep using digital services independently without having to phone government or visit us in person.

While we recommend plain English as the default, this style is not going to work for every user. That’s why we suggest this rule of thumb: make communication as simple as its users need. One group of users may need similar information to another, but in much greater detail. In certain circumstances your user research may tell you that you need to write the same content twice: one version for a general audience and another for technical users.

The Australian Government is committed to making its websites more accessible through conformance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 at AA level, and AAA level for certain websites.

The standard style references for Australian Government are:

Some of the guidance provided in this article for digital content varies from that which is provided in the Style manual for authors, editors and printers. These differences are noted in this guide.

How do I?

Structure content

Identify the aim

It is difficult to write information for your audience if its purpose is unclear. Identify the aim of your content to determine the level of detail required. Focus on how the user should do something, rather than telling them about something. Make calls to action clear and simple.

Use headings

Headings are signposts in text and navigational aids. Readers use headings to scan content and to gauge the relationship between and importance of sections of text.

Limit levels

Content should only have 1 top level (H1) heading. Be careful with the number of headings added beyond this. Readers will lose track if there are too many heading levels. Short content should only use 2 extra subheading levels (H2 and H3). Longer content might require more (H4s and maybe H5s).

Pace usage

To aid readability and comprehension, use headings to break up text and draw in the reader.

To support both navigation and access, use a heading at least every 200 words or so (every 2 to 4 paragraphs).

Be interesting

Make headings specific enough to catch the reader’s attention. You should either provide information or raise a query. Avoid meaningless words for headings such as general, miscellaneous, other, or more.

Keep short

Try to limit headings to less than 1 line. Headings that spill over to a second line are harder to read and to recall.

Chunk in paragraphs

A paragraph is a section of text that contains a single idea.

State your idea in the first sentence. This will attract your reader’s attention and get your message across. Readers often scan headings and first sentences of paragraphs as they search for the information they want.

Vary length

Structure your paragraphs so they range in length from 1 to 4 sentences.

If appropriate to the content, vary the length of paragraph to provide variety. This makes content more interesting and readable.

Use simple sentences

Use short sentences that contain a single message. If you need to communicate other messages use a second sentence, commas or brackets.

Vary the length of your sentences to make content less tiring to read. For many people comprehension can start to fail after 25 to 30 words, so this should be the limit of your longest sentences.

Break up content with lists

If you have long sentences with many elements, use a list to break up the text and make it easier for your reader to understand and scan.

Use bullet lists by default. You should only use numbers or letters when it is necessary to show a priority order or chronology.

There are 4 types of lists

Sentence fragments

The most common type of bulleted list comprises a series of sentence fragments. The list items should flow logically from a common introduction (the first part of the sentence).

For example:

A sentence fragment list should:

  • contain at least 2 items
  • flow neatly from the introduction
  • end with a full stop.

Each item in your list must make sense when read directly from the introduction. For instance, if there is a verb at the beginning of the first bulleted point, you need a verb at the beginning of all the others too, such as identifying, rewriting and structuring.

For example:

Parallel structure in a fragmented list requires:

  • identifying items that can be collected into a list
  • rewriting items so they are not sentences in their own right
  • structuring items to have the same kind of start, such as
    • nouns like ‘cat’
    • verbs like ‘read’
    • adjectives like ‘quick’.

Don’t include a full sentence within an item in a fragmented list. This destroys parallel structure, making the list difficult to understand. If the full sentence is necessary, the information is not suitable for list structure and needs to be rewritten.

If a list, or part of a list, consists of a single item it should be rewritten as a sentence, or reworked as part of the previous item that led into it.

For sentence fragment lists use a lower-case first letter for each item, and no punctuation at the end of any item except the last, which has a full stop.

Full sentences

Lists made up of items that are full sentences are less common. This kind of list may be introduced by a full sentence, but more often by a sentence fragment.

For example:

Plain English is important for a number of reasons including:

  • We can never be sure how much background information a reader will have so it’s important not to make assumptions in our writing.
  • Often we will have to revise content. If the original content is written in plain English it will be much easier to revise than dense technical text.

For full sentence lists use normal sentence punctuation; a capital first letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end of each item.

Stand-alone items

Stand-alone lists run straight off a heading. The items are generally shopping list-style: a series of unrelated, typically short items that do not integrate easily into normal text or are more easily understood in list form. The structure of the ‘How do I?’ section in guides is an example of a stand-alone item list.

For example:

Writing for the web

  • Identify the aim of the content
  • Work out the best format
  • Edit and proofread

For stand-alone lists there is no colon after the introductory heading (applying minimal punctuation in headings) and no punctuation at the end of any item, including the last item. Start each list item with a capital first letter.

Nested lists

For nested lists use a lower-case first letter to start each item. There is no punctuation at the end of any item, unless the last item is also the end of the entire list, in which case there is a full stop.

For example:

When writing for the web be sure to:

  • identify the aim of the content
  • work out the best format
  • edit and proofread your work by checking for
    • spelling and punctuation errors
    • factual accuracy.

Don’t use a colon at the end of an item leading into a sub-list (if the list returned to a running sentence there would be no temptation to do this as it would look incorrect).

Use preferred terms

Write this Instead of this
Australian Government Federal Government, or Commonwealth Government (unless referring to the entity established by the Constitution)
state and territory, and local governments State and Territory and Local Governments
enough adequate number of
total aggregated
among amongst
because as a consequence of
find out ascertain
later at a later date
now at this point in time
aware of, know cognisant of
start, begin commence
about concerning
so consequently
although, despite despite the fact that
pay disburse
stop discontinue
send dispatch
documents documentation
in September during the month of September
expect, think envisage
create, set up, form establish
consider give consideration to
if not if this is not the case
if so if this is the case
affect impact on
in line with in accordance with
to in order to
get, have, receive, receiving in receipt of
if when in the event of, in the event that
because in the light of, in view of
you should declare it is requested that you declare
note that, remember that it should be noted that
complain make a complaint
apply make an application
for on behalf of
before prior to
respond to provide a response to
help provide assistance with
under pursuant to
decide reach a decision
need or must require
re-use, reusing reuse, re-using
after subsequently
that is why, the reason why that is the reason why
because, the reason is the reason is because
then, afterwards thereafter
until until such time as
on upon
user-centred design user centred design
use utilise
whether whether or not
about, regarding with reference to, with regard to, with respect to

Write in plain English

Plain English is the difference between this:

We are working to make your job easier by giving you access to communicate with us electronically through a new service provider view of our online portal. (27 words)

and this:

The new service provider view of the portal makes it easier for you to communicate with us. (17 words)

You should use the language that is appropriate to your audience. Generally this should be plain English, however there may be a business case for including technical or legal language. This may mean you will need to write the same content in a different way for a different user base. The rule is to make language as simple as its users need.

There is lots of guidance on how to write in plain English:

Write in active voice

A sentence is in the active voice when the agent of the action (that is, the person or thing doing something) appears in front of the verb.

For example:

John Smith (agent) ate (verb) the grape (target).

This sentence shows you clearly and immediately who is doing the action.

A sentence is in the passive voice when the target of the verb appears in front of the verb.

For example:

The grape (target) was eaten (verb) by John Smith (agent).

Active voice clearly identifies who is doing what to whom, is more immediate and generally uses fewer words. Try using the first and second person instead of the third person to help you to write in the active voice.

Personalise content

Make your content more personal by using the first and second person pronouns I, we, us and you rather than third-person nouns (such as Australian Government Department of Finance) and pronouns (he, she, it and they).

Instead of:

If the author is having difficulty creating content using markdown, the web policy team can provide further guidance.

Write:

If you are having difficulty creating content using markdown, we can provide further guidance.

Be inclusive

Language is discriminatory if it:

Use gender-neutral job titles:

Avoid using gender-specific singular pronouns (he/she, her/his, her/him) by rewriting the sentence.

For example: instead of “Every employee should fill out his employment declaration” write “Every employee should fill out an employment declaration”.

Writing about disability
Culturally and linguistically diverse audiences

When referring to people who have come to Australia from non-English speaking countries, use ‘people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds’ (CALD).

When preparing content for CALD audiences, you should recognise cultural diversity and specific needs while not stereotyping or making assumptions.

Things to consider when writing content for CALD audiences:

There is more information on writing for CALD audiences in the designing inclusive services guide.

Indigenous Australian audiences

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences come from a diverse range of places and backgrounds. For many, English may be a second language and written English may be difficult to understand so you should be extra careful that your writing tone and style suits the audience.

Use correct terminology

There is more information on writing for Indigenous Australian audiences in designing inclusive services.

Use minimal punctuation

Limit punctuation to only what is needed to aid comprehension and balance ease of reading and clarity of message. It is easier for a user to read several short sentences than a long sentence broken up with punctuation.

Apostrophes

The apostrophe’s role is to indicate:

The following words are often incorrectly punctuated.

Correct Incorrect Explanation
It’s an easy step to take. Its an easy step to take. It’s is the contraction of it is.
The government launched its new information package. The government launched it’s new information package Its is the possessive pronoun (belonging to it).
Who’s the right person? Whose the right person? Who’s is the contraction of who is.
Whose is this? Who’s is this? Whose: the possessive pronoun (belonging to whom?).
It’s your choice It’s you’re choice. Your: the possessive pronoun (belonging to you).
You’re right about it. Your right about it. You’re: the contraction of you are.
These are their words. These are they’re words. Their: the possessive pronoun (belonging to them).
They’re all over there. Their all over there. They’re: the contraction of they are.
The documents are over there. The documents are over their. There: in or at a particular place.

See also the UK Plain English Campaign’s guide to using apostrophes.

Possession

To show possession you add an apostrophe and the letter ‘s’ to the noun, in that order, including names and singular nouns that end with an ‘s’. The exception is plural common nouns ending with an ‘s’, to which we add only an apostrophe.

For example:

  • The Commissioner’s column, OCTC’s main role, Dickens’s novels (proper nouns, names).
  • The builder’s tax return, the business line’s delivery plan (singular common nouns).
  • The people’s responses to the survey, the children’s applications (plural common nouns not ending in ‘s’).
  • Field workers’ particular problems, the agencies’ budgets, several employers’ obligations, your clients’ reporting requirements (plural common nouns ending in ‘s’).

Don’t use an apostrophe:

Two-word contractions

When 2 adjacent words are contracted into 1 you use an apostrophe to show that letters have been omitted.

Avoid using should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, and so forth. as these contractions are difficult to read.

Write numbers consistently

To balance consistency and readability, write:

Also use numerals when the number is:

This guidance differs from the recommendation of the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition). We know from eye-tracking research that users read differently when content is on the screen compared to on a printed page (generally they scan the page, rather than read it from top to bottom). It is quicker for users to read a number than a word when consuming content on a screen.

To link to external content create a hyperlink with an accurate description of the content as as the link text.

For example:

Refer to the Macquarie Dictionary’s definitions for the correct spelling.

Always link to online services first. Offer offline alternatives afterwards (where possible).

To link to files, such as PDF or DOCX, add the format and the size of the file in brackets within the link.

For example:

The Digital Service Standard poster (PDF 83 KB).

Proofread

The aim of proofreading is to ensure there are no inconsistencies or mistakes within the content before it is published. Extensive changes should not be made to your content at the proofreading stage. The insertion of new content at this stage can be time consuming, and can produce new and potentially embarrassing mistakes.

Check spelling and punctuation

You should use standard Australian spelling. The Macquarie Dictionary is the standard reference guide.

Computer spelling and grammar checkers are useful aids but they don’t replace the need for careful manual checking. In particular, these tools do not recognise correctly spelt words that appear in the wrong context, such as ‘font’ and ‘front’, ‘form’ and ‘from’, ‘public’ and ‘pubic’, ‘practice’ and ‘practise’, and ‘contract’ and ‘contact’.

Always spell the name of an individual or organisation the way they spell it, such as World Health Organization (with a z).

Americanisms

Avoid using Americanisms, unless the American spelling or term is the commonly accepted online usage.

For example:

  • You fill in a form_,_ not fill out a form.
  • Use the ise rather than ize suffix, that is organise not organize.
  • Shopping cart is the commonly used term for online shopping rather than shopping trolley.

The default Microsoft Word spell checker setting is US English, which differs from Australian English (for instance, in the spelling of words ending in ise, where the American version uses ize).

Keep style consistent

If you are producing content across a number of sources, be sure to check your style is consistent across them all.

In particular, check:

This content has been adapted from the UK Government Digital Service Design Manual guides on Content and publishing under the Open Government Licence v3.0 and the New Zealand Government Web Toolkit guides on Design and development under the under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand license.

Last updated: 29 September 2015