Content design: planning, writing and managing content

Writing for GOV.UK

How to write well for your audience, including specialists.

Writing well for the web

People read differently on the web than they do on paper. This means that the best approach when writing for the web is different from writing for print.

Our guidance on writing for GOV.UK is based on research into how people read online and how people use GOV.UK. It explains what each rule is based on.

When you write for GOV.UK you should:

Meet the user need

Don’t publish everything you can online. Publish only what someone needs to know so they can complete their task. Nothing more.

People don’t usually read text unless they want information. When you write for the web, start with the same question every time: what does the user want to know?

Meeting that need means being:

  • specific
  • informative
  • clear and to the point

Finding information on the web

An individual’s process of finding and absorbing information on the web should follow these steps.

  1. I have a question

  2. I can find the page with the answer easily – I can see it’s the right page from the search results listing

  3. I have understood the information

  4. I have my answer

  5. I trust the information

  6. I know what to do next/my fears are allayed/I don’t need anything else

A website only works if people can find what they need quickly, complete their task and leave without having to think about it too much.

Good content is easy to read

Good online content is easy to read and understand.

It uses:

  • short sentences
  • sub-headed sections
  • simple vocabulary

This helps people find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly.

The main purpose of GOV.UK is to provide information - there’s no excuse for putting unnecessarily complicated writing in the way of people’s understanding.

Writing well for specialists

Government experts often say that because they’re writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they don’t need to use plain English. This is wrong.

Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.

For example, research into use of specialist legal language in legal documents found:

  • 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English - and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference (eg, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the Latin ‘inter alia’)
  • the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English

People understand complex specialist language, but don’t want to read it if there’s an alternative. This is because people with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They don’t have time to pore through reams of dry, complicated prose.

Technical terms

Where you need to use technical terms, you can. They’re not jargon. You just need to explain what they mean the first time you use them.

Legal content can still be written in plain English. It’s important that users understand content and that we present complicated information simply.

If you have to publish legal jargon, it will be a publication so you’ll be writing a plain English summary.

Where evidence shows there’s a clear user need for including a legal term, eg ‘bona vacantia’, always explain it in plain English.

If you’re talking about a legal requirement, use ‘must’. For example, ‘your employer must pay you the National Minimum Wage (NMW)’.

If you feel that ‘must’ doesn’t have enough emphasis, then use ‘legal requirement’, ‘legally entitled’ etc. For example: ‘Once your child is registered at school, you’re legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly’.

When deciding whether to use ‘must’ or ‘legally entitled’ etc, consider how important it is for us to talk about the legal aspect, as well as the overall tone of voice.

If a requirement is legal, but administrative, or part of a process that won’t have criminal repercussions, then use: ‘need to’. For example: ‘You will need to provide copies of your marriage certificate’.

This may be a legal requirement, but not completing it would just stop the person from moving on to the next stage of a process, rather than committing a more serious offence.

Don’t use footnotes on documents. They’re designed for reference in print, not web pages. Always consider the user need first. If the information in the footnotes is important, include it in the body text. If it’s not, leave it out.

Know your audience

Your writing will be most effective if you understand who you’re writing for.

To understand your audience you should know:

  • how they behave, what they’re interested in or worried about - so your writing will catch their attention and answer their questions
  • their vocabulary - so that you can use the same terms and phrases they’ll use to search for content

When you have more than one audience, make your writing as easy to read as possible so it’s accessible to everyone.

The GOV.UK audience

The GOV.UK audience is potentially anyone living in the UK who needs information about their government, or people abroad who want to do business in or travel to the UK. This means government must communicate in a way that most people understand.

The best way to do this is by using common words and working with natural reading behaviour.

If you’re writing for a specialist audience, you still need to make sure everyone can understand what the content is about.

How people read

Knowing how people read means you’ll write in a way they can understand easily and quickly - so you don’t waste their time.

All of this guidance is based on the learning skills of an average person in the UK, who speaks English as their first language. This guidance also applies when you’re writing for specialists.

Common words

By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Adults still find these words easier to recognise and understand than words they’ve learned since.

By age 9, you’re building up your ‘common words’ vocabulary. Your primary set is around 5,000 words; your secondary set is around 10,000 words. You use these words every day.

Use short words instead of long words

When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words (3, 4 or 5 letters) that follow it. So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.

For example:

“The recently implemented categorical standardisation procedure on waste oil should not be applied before 1 January 2015.”

The ‘not’ is far more obvious in this:

“Do not use the new waste oil standards before 1 January 2015.”

Reading skills

Children quickly learn to read common words (the 5000 words they use most). They then stop reading these words and start recognising their shape. This allows people to read much faster. Children already read like this by the time they’re 9 years old.

People also don’t read one word at a time. They bounce around - especially online. They anticipate words and fill them in.

Your brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand. Your vocabulary will grow but this reading skill stays with you as an adult. You don’t need to read every word to understand what is written.

This is why we tell people to write on GOV.UK for a 9 year old reading age.

Explaining the unusual

We explain all unusual terms on GOV.UK. This is because you can understand 6-letter words as easily as 2-letter words – if they’re in context. If the context is right, you can read a short word faster than a single letter.

By giving full information and using common words, we’re helping people speed up their reading and understand information in the fastest possible way.

Short sentences

People with some learning disabilities read letter for letter - they don’t bounce around like other users. They also can’t fully understand a sentence if it’s too long.

People with moderate learning disabilities can understand sentences of 5 to 8 words without difficulty. By using common words we can help all users understand sentences of around 25 words.

Capital letters are harder to read

When you learn to read, you start with a mix of upper and lower case but you don’t start understanding uppercase until you’re around 6 years old.

At first, you may sound out letters, merge sounds, merge letters and so learn the word.

Then you stop reading it.

At that point, you recognise the shape of the word. This speeds up comprehension and speed of reading.

As writers, we don’t want people to read. We want people to recognise the ‘shape’ of the word and understand. It’s a lot faster.

Capital letters are reputed to be 13 to 18% harder for users to read. So we try to avoid them.

Block capitals indicate shouting in common online usage. We are government. We should not be shouting.

Ampersands can be hard to understand

Ampersands are allowed in logos – the pictorial logo at the top of an organisation page – but not in body copy.

The reason is that ‘and’ is easier to read and easier to skim. Some people with lower literacy levels also find ampersands harder to understand. As government, we can’t exclude users in any way.

How users read web pages

Users read very differently online than on paper. They don’t necessarily read top to bottom or even from word to word.

Instead, users only read about 20 to 28% of a web page. Where users just want to complete their task as quickly as possible, they skim even more out of impatience.

Web-user eye-tracking studies show that people tend to ‘read’ a webpage in an ‘F’ shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.

What this means is: put the the most important information first. So we talk a lot about ‘front-loading’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points.

For example, say ‘Canteen menu’, not ‘What’s on the menu at the canteen today?’

Good example

At the activity centre you can:

  • swim
  • play
  • run

Bad example

At the activity centre:

  • you can swim
  • you can play
  • you can run

Titles

Most people who use GOV.UK start with a search engine. Use the same vocabulary as your audience so they can find your content. This begins with your page title and summary.

If people can’t find your page or understand the content, they won’t be able to act on it or know it’s for them.

When writing a title consider if it makes sense:

  • by itself – for example ‘Regulations’ doesn’t say much, but ‘Regulations for landlords’ does
  • in search results
  • in collections

Titles don’t have to reflect the official publication title. Make them user focused, clear and descriptive so that users can distinguish if it’s the right content for them.

Find out what the public calls your content by using search tools to look up keywords. Your scheme, organisation or process’s official or internal name may not be what the public calls it.

  1. Check searches on GOV.UK for any related content. This can tell you what people are struggling to find.
  2. Once you know the most popular keywords you can prioritise them in the title, summary, introduction and subheadings

Example

Good title example: Bereavement Allowance (previously widow’s pension)

Good summary example: Bereavement Allowance (previously widow’s pension) is a weekly benefit for widows, widowers or surviving civil partners - rates, eligibility, claim form.

Title length

Your title should be 65 characters or less (including spaces).

You can use more than 65 characters if it’s essential for making the title clear or unique, but don’t do this routinely because:

  • Google cuts off the rest of the title after 65 characters
  • longer titles are harder to understand

Make your titles clear and descriptive

The title should provide full context so that users can easily see if they’ve found what they’re looking for.

By being general about a topic, you leave the user asking ‘what is this in relation to?’

Example

Bad title example: Hazardous waste - new process

Give the user context around the topic and what this content will tell them:

Good title example: How to dispose of hazardous waste in your area

Avoid saying the same thing twice (tautologies)

Repeating yourself in the title uses up valuable characters that could be used to give more information.

Example

Bad title example: Using and submitting your business expenses

Good title example: Submitting your business expenses

Using ‘ing’ in titles

Use the active verb (‘Submit’) if you use the page to do the thing.

Good form title example: Submit your business expenses

Use the gerund (‘Submitting’) if the page is about doing the thing, but you do it elsewhere.

Good guidance title example: Submitting your business expenses

Don’t include the format type from the title

Don’t include the name of the format type, such as ‘guidance’ or ‘consultation’, because it appears automatically at the top of a publication. This will free up space to tell the user what the content is about.

Example

Bad title example: Consultation on furniture fire safety regulations

It’s better to use the title to explain exactly what the consultation is for.

Good title example: Amendments to furniture fire safety regulations

Bad title example: Potato guidance

It’s better to explain what the document is about, not its format:

Good title example: How to grow potatoes

Some content types have a specific style, such as:

Remove the date unless there are yearly versions

Put the year in the title if the page is part of a series that has the same title.

For example, a list of annual reports:

Title: Government annual report 2018
Title: Government annual report 2017
Title: Government annual report 2016

Don’t include your department name

Only add your department or agency name to the title if the content is about your department – for example annual reports or corporate information.

Example

Title example: Highways Agency environmental strategy

On its own, ‘Environmental strategy’ could apply to any department or agency. In this case, it’s better to add the department name to differentiate it.

Summaries

Along with the title, the summary is usually what users see in search results so it should give them a clear indication of what the content is about. Make sure people can see quickly whether the page will have the information they need.

Keep all summaries to 160 characters (including spaces) as Google usually only shows the first 160 characters in search results. If your summary is longer, make sure you cover the main point of the page in the first 160 characters.

Summaries should end with a full stop. It can help people who use assistive technology like screen readers.

Answer the user’s question in the summary

People will easily find well-optimised content. If you have a simple answer to a question, put it in the summary. This means users don’t need to leave Google (or whatever search engine they choose to use) to get their information.

Example

Most people want to know the cost of a passport before they apply. We’ve put the price in the page summary so it appears in search results.

Title: Passport fees

Summary: A standard adult first passport or renewal costs £72.50. Child passports cost £46. You’ll pay a different fee if you apply for a passport from another country. You can’t get a refund if you cancel your application or you’re not entitled to a passport.

Title: Report a stuffed toy accident

Summary: Call the STIB reporting line on 08081 570000 and then fill in the accident report form.

Use plain English to avoid confusion

Use plain English and write like you’re talking to your user one-on-one, but with the authority of someone who can actively help.

Example

Bad summary example: Implementing the government’s strengthened approach to budget support: technical note

If you use plain English, you make the purpose of the content clearer.

Good summary example: How the government is making budget support more effective in countries supported by the UK

For more examples of words not to use in summaries, read the words to avoid list.

Avoid redundant introductory words

These don’t tend to give the user any more information than what they would already assume.

Examples:

  • This consultation is about…
  • The purpose of this document…
  • A form to …

Remove as much as you can without losing critical information. Include keywords – especially ones you haven’t included in the page title.

Keep summaries active and include a verb. You can use words like ‘How…’, ‘What…’ and ‘When…’ to introduce active words, for example ‘When applying for a…’.

Example

Bad summary example: Please complete the attached form to apply to gain a licence to sail on the River Thames.

It’s better to get straight to the point of what a user can do with this content.

Good summary example: Get a licence to sail your pleasure boat on the River Thames.

Don’t repeat the title in the summary

Use the summary to give more information on what the content is about.

Example

Title example: Training materials for oil pollution: contingency planning and response

Bad summary example: Training materials for gas pollution, contingency planning and response course.

Good summary example: Get the supporting materials for the ‘gas pollution contingency planning and response’ course, and an overview of what to do to comply with the National Contingency Plan.

Structuring your content

Page length

There is no minimum or maximum page length for GOV.UK. However:

This means that the quicker you get to the point, the greater the chance your target audience will see the information you want them to.

It’s most important that you write well. If you write only a single paragraph but it’s full of caveats, jargon and things users don’t need to know (but you want to say) then it’s still too much.

Writing body copy

Keep your body copy as focused as possible.

Remember that you’re likely to be battling outside factors for people’s attention, not least their mood and situation. They might be looking on a mobile on a train, trying to complete their task online in the middle of a stressful family event or any combination of multiple unknowns. If you want their attention, don’t waste their time.

  1. Don’t repeat the summary in the first paragraph.
  2. Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ approach with the most important information at the top tapering down to lesser detail.
  3. Break up text with descriptive subheadings. The text should still make sense with the subheadings removed.
  4. Paragraphs should have no more than 5 sentences each.
  5. Includes keywords to boost natural search rankings.

Sub-headings

Make sure your sub-headings are front-loaded with search terms and make them active.

Don’t use:

  • gerunds, eg ‘Apply for a licence’ not ‘Applying for a licence’
  • questions
  • technical terms unless you’ve already explained them
  • ‘introduction’ as your first section – users don’t want an introduction, just give the most important information

Don’t use FAQs

FAQs are strongly discouraged on GOV.UK. If you write content by starting with user needs, you won’t need to use FAQs.

FAQs are discouraged because they:

  • duplicate other content on the site
  • can’t be front-loaded (putting the most important words people will search for), which makes usability difficult
  • are usually not frequently asked questions by the public, but important information dumped by the content editor
  • mean that content is not where people expect to find it; it needs to be in context
  • can add to search results with duplicate, competing text

If your call-centres get questions that really are frequently asked, get in touch and GDS will help find a way to take care of those user needs.

Writing to GOV.UK style

It’s important to stick to the style guide. The style guide is based on a lot of user testing.

GDS commissioned research on the impact of style guides. Have a look.

Be concise

To keep content understandable, concise and relevant, it should be:

  • specific
  • informative
  • clear and concise
  • brisk but not terse
  • incisive (friendliness can lead to a lack of precision and unnecessary words) – but remain human (not a faceless machine)
  • serious but not pompous
  • emotionless – adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like spin

You should:

  • use contractions (eg can’t)
  • not let caveats dictate unwieldy grammar – eg say ‘You can’ rather than ‘You may be able to’
  • use the language people are using – use Google Trends to check for terms people search for
  • not use long sentences – check any sentences with more than 25 words to see if you can split them to make them clearer

(Note: words ending in ‘–ion’ and ‘–ment’ tend to make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be.)

Active voice

Use the active rather than passive voice. This will help us write concise, clear content.

Addressing the user

Address the user as ‘you’ where possible. Content on the site often makes a direct appeal to citizens and businesses to get involved or take action, eg ‘You can contact HMRC by phone and email’ or ‘Pay your car tax’.

Capitalisation

DON’T USE BLOCK CAPITALS FOR LARGE AMOUNTS OF TEXT. IT’S HARD TO READ.

Contractions

Use contractions eg can’t, you’ll. Some organisations are reluctant to use them but we’ve never encountered a problem with understanding when testing with users.

Sometimes, lots of ‘cannot’, ‘should not’ etc can seem archaic and formal. That’s a tone we can move away from without jeopardising the overall tone of information coming from government.

Date ranges

Use ‘to’ instead of a dash or slash in date ranges. ‘To’ is quicker to read than a dash, and it’s easier for screen readers.

Always explain what your date range represents, eg ‘tax year 2013 to 2014’ or ‘September 2013 to July 2014’. Date ranges can be the academic year, calendar year or tax year. This is why date ranges must be very, very clear.

If you’re comparing statistics from 2 different tax or financial years, use ‘Comparing the financial year ending 2011 with that ending 2012, there was a 9% decrease’.

GOV.UK gets over 50 million visits a month. There is no guarantee that only your intended audience will find your content, or that everyone will understand what you mean.

But we can make sure we get as close to accessible for everyone as we possibly can, simply by being very, very clear.

Gender-neutral text

Make sure text is gender neutral wherever possible. Use ‘them’, ‘their’, ‘they’ etc.

Front-load your link text with the relevant terms and make them active and specific. Always link to online services first. Offer offline alternatives afterwards (where possible).

Plain English

Plain English is mandatory for all of GOV.UK. One of the parts most people pick up on is the plain English (or words to avoid) list.

This isn’t just a list of words to avoid. Plain English is the whole ethos of GOV.UK: it’s a way of writing.

The list isn’t exhaustive. It’s an indicator to show you the sort of language that confuses users.

Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’.

We also lose trust from people if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without these words.

With all of these words you can generally get rid of them by breaking the term into what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.

Write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.

Writing about disability

Words to use and avoid when writing about disability.

When to use ‘we’

In the ‘about us’ section of the organisation page, lead with ‘we’ – it will be very obvious who the ‘we’ is on this page.

In policies, ‘we’ is also used, for example, ‘We announced our intention to do x as part of the coalition agreement.’

However, it’s not obvious who ‘we’ is in all content. For example, in a publication or detailed guide, users might enter the content in the middle of a page. They could arrive at an H2 heading from the navigation bar on the side, or skim read from the top until they find the section they want.

Using ‘we’ is fine, as long as you’re making it clear as much as possible who the ‘we’ is. Don’t assume the audience will know. Each time you use ‘we’, make sure you’ve already used the full name of the department or agency in that specific section.

After publication

Check your content is working for your users

You should regularly confirm that your content works for your users. You can check:

  • on page searches in analytics (often an indication people didn’t find what they were looking for on that page)
  • how users got to your page and where they clicked next (are they going where you expected or wanted them to?)
  • user feedback left on GOV.UK through the Feedback Explorer
  • feedback from any offline channels, eg helplines

Change notes

When you edit or change a page, write what’s changed in the ‘Change note’ field. Change notes are publicly viewable. They show users what’s changed, and they help government be transparent, so it doesn’t look like information is being secretly changed.

Changes notes are:

  • added to the page, where users can find them by clicking ‘see all updates’ and then ‘full page history’
  • sent out automatically to people subscribed to email updates

Use change notes to tell users about substantial changes to the page, not fixing typos, broken links or style issues. Make them meaningful and useful.

Where possible, put the changed information in the change note itself, so the user doesn’t have to look through the page or follow the link in their email update.

Summarise the changes if it isn’t possible to include all the changed information in the change note, for example if a lot of content has changed or the change contains a table of data. Be as specific as possible. Include where the change appears, for example if the change is within a publication, give the chapter, page or heading under which the change has been made.

Don’t use changes notes for telling users:

  • that the page has been changed without explaining what has changed
  • for regular scheduled updates, unless your users want an email notification when the page is published
  • about fixing typos, broken links, style or layout issues

Good examples

Added the prospectus for 2017 to 2018.

Form A123 has been updated - question 4 on page 2 now asks for your previous address.

Potatoes have been added to the banned vegetable import list from outside the EU.

Edited chapter 6 - centres in Cardiff and Aberystywth have closed. There’s only one service centre now, in Merthyr Tydfil.

Bad examples

Page updated.

Weekly update to prices.

Removed information.

GOV.UK style.