Style guide

The style guide and content creation guidance feeds from the Digital Design Philosophy, Digital Design Principles, Content Standard, and the Site and Content Ethos.

It also sits alongside the Detailed Guide to Content Types and Design Patterns. These are working documents to help with consistency across the website.

Who creates content for nottinghamshire.gov.uk?

Content for nottinghamshire.gov.uk will be created by Digital Officers, with services responsible for the accuracy of the content and supplying factual updates.

The layout of pages and the wording will be decided by the Digital Officers by applying good practice, using the Digital Design Principles and Content Ethos to guide their approach and then testing with real people (ideally customers using the service the content relates to) in order to optimise all content fully.

Before starting any piece of content the service will be asked to consider the Golden Rules in the Content Standard.

Style guide

This style guide will provide consistency for the Digital Officers and is a reference for them in the first instance but as we work openly it is published here for all to see. The information provided may change over time dependent on what we learn from analytics, testing and customers.

Our base style guides are the Government Digital Services' Content Style Guide and LocalGov Digital’s Content Standard.

Style points

The golden rules of writing for the web:

  • make it brief and to the point
  • break up text into subheaded sections
  • use bullet lists
  • ‘front-load’ subheadings, titles and bullet points to put the most important information first
  • include links to external sites and relevant pages
  • use words that are easy to understand
  • use active, not passive, voice.

See the Detailed Guide to Content Types and Design Patterns for information on building content to meet specific user needs.

How users read

As customers only read 20% to 28% of a web page and where they’re impatient to complete a service as quickly as possible they may skim words even more.

This section is background to why our guidance for creating content, and the style set out in this guide, is the way it is. It is based on the Government Digital Service guidance which comes from best practice and user research, and further research by Nielsen.

Reading age

You don’t read one word at a time. You bounce around. You anticipate words and fill them in.

By the time you’re nine years old, 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 should also be confident in sounding out words and blending sounds. You may not know the word, but you have the skills to be able to learn it.

This is why we aim our content to be suitable for a reading age of nine years old.

Lower case

When you learn to read, you start with a mix of upper and lower case but you don’t start to understand upper case until you are around six years old.

At first you sound out letters, merge sounds, merge letters, 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. So we don’t want people to read it. We want people to recognise the 'shape' of the word and understand.

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

Also, in modern usage it sounds like we’re shouting. We are a council. We should not be shouting.

Plain English

By the time you are nine, you’re building up your ‘common words’. Your primary set is around 5,000 words of vocabulary with a secondary set of 10,000 words.

These are the words you use every day.

They include a lot of Plain English words, which is why we are obsessed with them. These are the words so easy to comprehend, you learn to read them quickly and then you stop reading and start recognising.

Context

We explain all unusual terms on Nottinghamshire.gov.uk. This is because you can understand six-letter words as easily as two-letter words – if they’re in context.

Sometimes, you can read a short word faster than a single letter – if the context is correct.

Not only are we giving full information, we’re speeding up their reading time. By giving full contact and using common words, we’re allowing them to understand in the fastest possible way. This is great for customers who are impatient to complete a service in a hurry.

In transactions you need to give people context and the information they are expecting. This helps them get through it faster.

Learning disabilities

We should remember that 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 five to eight words without difficulty. By concentrating on common words we can help all users understand sentences of around 25 words.

See also the section in the style guide on inclusive language and writing about disabilities.

Why we do this

Our audience is potentially anyone living or working in Nottinghamshire or visiting the county from elsewhere in the UK or abroad. We can’t be elitist or use language only bureaucrats or specialists can understand.

To create digital services so good that those that can prefer to use them we need to open up council information to everyone. That means using common words and working with natural reading behaviour.

A-Z style guide

These style points apply to all content published on Nottinghamshire.gov.uk.

It includes:

  • guidance on specific points of style eg abbreviations and numbers
  • Nottinghamshire.gov.uk style for specific words and phrases, in terms of spelling, hyphenation and capitalisation.

If you have a query about a point of style that isn’t covered here, check the GOV.UK style guide first for guidance and if not covered there the Guardian Style Guide.

A

Abbreviations and acronyms

If you must use an abbreviation or acronym, then follow these principles.

The first time you use an abbreviation or acronym explain it on full on each page unless it’s well known, eg UK, VAT, EU. Central government abbreviations should be written in full the first time they appear on a page, eg Department for Education (first time, thereafter DfE). Use acronym markdown so the full explanation is available as hover text.

If you think your acronym is well known you’ll need to provide evidence that 80% of Nottinghamshire’s population will understand and commonly use the term. Evidence can come from search analytics, the Customer Contact Centre or other contact channel, or testing a representative sample.

Don’t use full stops in abbreviations – BBC, not B.B.C

Don’t use an acronym if you’re not going to use it again later on the same page.

(See also, NCC)

Active voice

Use the active rather than passive voice. This helps to write concise, clear content.

(see also ‘Tone of voice’)

Addressing the user

Address the customer as ‘you’ where possible. Make best use of direct appeals to get involved or take action, eg ‘Apply for your waste permit’.

(see also ‘Tone of voice’, ‘You…’, ‘We…’)

Americanisms

Don’t use Americanisms. You ‘fill in’ a form, not ‘fill out’.

Use the ‘ise’ rather than ‘ize’ suffix.

Ampersand

Use ‘and’ rather than an ‘&’.

Authority

Never refer to Nottinghamshire County Council as ‘the Authority’. Where needed use ‘local authority’ lower case.

(see also ‘Tone of voice’)

B

Banned words

(see ‘Words to avoid’)

Borough council

Where using the full name of the council use capital letters, eg Rushcliffe Borough Council, at all other times both words should be lower case.

Brackets

Use (round brackets).

Bullet points

Bullet points make text easier to read. Here’s how to use them:

  • always use a ‘lead-in’ sentence before starting the list off – as we’ve done above
  • bullets should always make sense running on from the lead-in sentence
  • don’t use full stops within bullet points – where possible start another bullet point or use commas, dashes or semicolons to expand on something
  • don’t put ‘or’, ‘and’ after the bullets
  • don’t use capital letters at the start of each point
  • end the last bullet point with a full-stop.

(see also ‘Steps’)

C

Capital letters

Don’t use block capitals – it’s hard to read as it removes the shape from the word. Many people will also read this as shouting and we’re a council, we shouldn’t be shouting.

As a general rule capitals should or shouldn’t be used as follows:

  • only use capitals for proper nouns
  • don’t capitalise council, but do when referring to Nottinghamshire County Council. Capitalise the name of a bill, act of piece of law the first time you use it, eg Care Act, but then refer to the act (lower case) after this on the same web page
  • use capitals for header cells in tables
  • use capitals for specific committees, eg Policy Committee, but not when mentioning committees generally
  • use capitals for place and brand names (or follow the brand convention, eg iPad, iPhone)

Contact information

Unless talking about a councillor or senior officer, avoid using individual names or other personal contact details. Refer instead to the general contact details for the council or service. This makes sure any correspondence is answered as quickly as possible.

When writing out a postal address each part of the address should be on a new line, no need for commas to be used on each line or a full stop at the end. A map should also be included with the postcode for a Sat Nav shown. Other information about the location should be included alongside, eg opening hours, parking information.

(see also ‘Telephone numbers’ and ‘email addresses’)

Council

Use lower case unless using the full name of a council, eg Nottinghamshire County Council. When referring to the council in a general way use lower case. Never use the Council when writing on digital channels.

(see also ‘Tone of voice’)

Councillor

  • Website and email: Councillor Joe Bloggs
  • Social media: Coun Joe Bloggs

Council Tax

Both words should use capital letters.

County council

Both words should be lower case unless using the full name of the council, eg Nottinghamshire County Council. Never use the County Council on digital channels.

(see also ‘Tone of voice’)

Committee

Use capitals for the name of the committee the first time it is mentioned on a page, eg Policy Committee, but refer to ‘the committee’ thereafter.

Use lower case when talking about committees generally.

D

Dates

The preferred format for dates is DD Month Year with no commas or suffixes, eg 12 December 2014.

There are a number of other rules for dates:

  • use upper case for months, eg January, February
  • don’t use a comma between the month and year
  • when space is an issue, eg tables, you can use truncated months, eg Jan, Feb
  • we use ‘to’ in date ranges – not hyphens, en rules or em dashes, eg
    • school year 2014 to 2015
    • Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm (put different days on a new line, don’t separate with a comma)
    • 10 November to 21 December
  • don’t use ‘quarter’ for dates; use the months, eg expenses January to March 2014
  • when referring to ‘today’ make sure you include the date as well

Disability

We defer to GOV.UK’s guidance on inclusive language, and words to use and avoid when writing about disability.

District council

Both words should be lower case unless using the full name of the council, eg Mansfield District Council. Never use the District Council on digital channels.

E

eg, etc, and ie

Use sparingly and consider the audience when abbreviating as some customers are not familiar with what they mean.

Where they are used don’t use full stops after or between these notations.

email addresses

Write email addresses in full, in lower case and as active links. Don’t include any other words as part of the link.

emailme

When referring to the council’s email marketing system use ‘emailme’ in lower case, no spaces.

e- prefixed words

Use sparingly as while denoting an electronic version there is usually no real need to be specific about the channel for the customer. The exception is email which should always be written in lower case, no hyphen or spaces.

Where the prefix 'e' refers to electronic, it should always be lower case, followed by an upper case letter, no hyphen. For example 'eLearning', 'eProcurement'. Both of these examples could be more simply explained as online learning or online procurement.

F

Facebook

Upper case. See the separate brand guidelines about use of the logo.

FAQs

Don’t use FAQs on digital channels. Content created with user needs in mind won’t need FAQs. There is more on GOV.UK about why we don’t use FAQs.

Figures

(see ‘Numbers’)

G

Government

Always use lower case, even when referring to the current administration.

H

homepage

One word, lower case.

Hyphenation

Hyphenate:

  • ‘re-‘ words starting with ‘e’, eg re-evaluate
  • co-ordinate
  • co-operate

Don’t hyphenate:

  • reuse
  • reinvent
  • reorder
  • reopen
  • email

If in doubt don’t use a hyphen unless it is confusing without one. Check the Oxford English Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

I

ie

(see ‘eg, etc and ie’)

Internet

Lower case.

Italics

Don’t use italics. Use single quotation marks if referring to a document, scheme or initiative.

J

Job titles

Specific job titles are councillors’ role titles are upper case, eg Council Leader, Chief Executive.

Generic job titles are lower case, eg director, councillor.

K

key stage, key stage 1, key stage 2 etc

Lower case

L

Links

There are a few rules about using links:

  • links to other pages or websites should be in a related links section unless the customer can’t continue with the current page without first clicking through to the linked place. Then the link can be included in the text. Never use ‘click here’ or ‘read more’, always make the text flow within the sentence.
  • write email addresses in full, in lower case and as active links. Don’t include any other words as part of the link.
  • only link a document, page or website once in the text, don’t repeat each time the same phrase is used afterwards
  • front-load your link text with the relevant terms and make them active and specific. Always link to the online service first, offer offline alternatives afterwards (if possible)
  • don’t enter into reciprocal link arrangements – link to other pages, websites and organisations where there is value to the company to do so, not to endorse or simply to get a link back from their site

Lists

Should be bulleted to make them easier to read – see Bullet points, Steps.

Very long lists can be written as a paragraph with a lead-in sentence if it looks better.

Local authority

Don’t use ‘Local Authority’, see also ‘Authority’. Use ‘we’ wherever possible. Where you need to use it make it lower case.

Don’t use LA.

(see also ‘Tone of Voice’)

Local council

Don’t use ‘Local Council’, see also ‘Authority’. Use ‘we’ wherever possible. Where you need to use it make it lower case.

(see also ‘Tone of Voice’)

M

Metaphors

See ‘words to avoid’.

Millions

Always use million in money (and billion), eg £138 million. Use millions in phrases.

Don’t use £0.XX million for amounts less than £1 million.

Money

Use the £ symbol.

Don’t use decimals unless pence are included, eg £75.50 but £75 (not £75.00)

Write out pence in full, eg four pence per minute.

Months

See ‘dates’

N

NCC

Never use the abbreviation NCC

(see also Abbreviations and acronyms)

Nottinghamshire County Council

There should rarely be a need to write Nottinghamshire County Council in full in digital communications or content. Let the fixed elements of the design provide the organisational context and branding and refer to the council as ‘us’.

O

Ofsted

Lower case and not in inverted commas.

P

Parish council

Both words should be lower case unless using the full name of the council.

Plain English

Plain English is mandatory for all communication from the council, including content on Nottinghamshire.gov.uk. This isn’t just a list of words to void (although we use GOV.UK’s list for this) but is our communications ethos.

The list on GOV.UK isn’t exhaustive but provides an example of words and language which could confuse customers.

In general, don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’ and ‘like’ instead of ‘such as’.

We lose trust from people if we write council ‘buzzwords’, jargon or use bureaucratic language. These words are often vague and can lead to misinterpretation or meaningless content. We can do without these words.

Instead of these words be open, and specific, by breaking the term into what you’re actually doing.

Q

Quotes and speech marks

A quotation mark should be included at the start of reported direct speech and then at the start of subsequent paragraphs, closed only at the end of the quoted section.

  • Single quotes: Use in headlines, for unusual terms and when referring to publications.
  • Double quotes: Use in body text for direct quotations.
  • Block quotes: Use the blockquote styling for quotes longer than a few sentences.

S

Self-assessment

This compound noun should be hyphenated.

Self Assessment Online

Upper case.

Sentence length

Don’t use long sentences – check any sentences with more than 25 words to see if you can split them to make them shorter.

There is more advice on GOV.UK on writing short sentences.

Spaces

Use only one space after a full stop, not two.

Speech marks

(see ‘Quotes and speech marks)

Steps

Use numbered steps instead of bullet points to guide a customer through a process. You don’t need a lead-in line and you can use links and downloads. Each step ends with a full stop because each step should be a complete sentence.

(see also ‘Bullet points’ and ‘Lists’)

Summaries (web page summaries)

Summaries should:

  • be 140 characters or less
  • end with a full stop
  • not repeat the title or body text
  • be clear and specific.

T

Telephone numbers

Use ‘Telephone: 011 111 111’ or ‘Mobile: 01111 111 111’, not Tel: or Mob:.

Uses spaces between city and local exchange.

When a number is memorable, group the numbers into easily remembered units, eg 0800 80 70 60.

Times

Use the 12-hour-clock.

Only use the decimal where minutes are needed, eg 11.30am, 11am.

Don’t use 12am or 12pm, avoid confusion by using midnight or noon, eg 12 noon

Where a duration is needed use ‘to’, eg 2pm to 3pm.

Titles

Page titles should:

  • be no longer than 65 characters
  • be unique, clear and descriptive
  • be front-loaded and optimised for search
  • use a colon to break up longer titles
  • not contain dashes or slashes
  • not have a full stop at the end
  • not use acronyms unless very well-known, eg EU
  • use capitalisation as set out in this style guide.

Town council

Both words should be lower case unless using the full name of the council.

Tone of voice

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

Trading Standards

Upper case.

Twitter

Upper case. There are further brand guidelines on how to use the Twitter logo on the Twitter website..

U

URLs

URLs (web addresses) are important both as a navigation tool for users and as an element in SEO. URLs should:

  • be semantic, reflecting the site structure and being intuitively meaningful to non-expert users
  • not be repetitive - eg /waste-and-recycling/recycling-centres/details/beeston instead of /waste-and-recycling/recycling-centres/recycling-centre-details/beeston-recycling-centre
  • be lowercase
  • be as short as possible with superfluous words such as 'and', 'a', 'an', and 'the' removed
  • use words and not contain acronyms wherever possible
  • use dashes to separate words to ensure they are easy to read
  • use the verb stem where possible - eg /apply instead of /applying
Short URLs

Short, vanity or friendly URLs are redirects which sit at the top level of a site and resolve to a ‘full’ URL.

Short URLs should only be created when needed for significant offline marketing and promotion where users are required to type them in. By default, short URLs do not use hyphens.

For online promotion and linking, full URLs should be used.

W

‘We…’

Use we wherever possible to keep the tone conversational. The fixed elements of the web page, such as the header, will give the reassurance or confirmation that ‘we’ refers to Nottinghamshire County Council. As One Council we shouldn’t refer to departments or teams in content unless it is vital to the customer for the information they’re reading or for them to access the service.

Words to avoid

By being open and specific you avoid metaphors and unnecessarily complicated language. By using plain English the information on nottinghamshire.gov.uk will be faster to read and easier to understand, helping our customers to do what they need to do faster.

The words to avoid list can be found on GOV.UK.

Y

‘You…’

Refer to customers as ‘you’ so they feel we’re talking to them personally.

(See also ‘We…’ and ‘Tone of voice’)

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