The style guide and content creation guidance feeds from the Digital Design Philosophy, Digital Design Principles, Content Standard, and the Site and Content Ethos, with the aim of creating 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 providing accurate 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 users using the service the content relates to) in order to fully optimise all content.
This style guide will provide consistency for the Digital Officers and is a reference for them in the first instance but it is published here for all to see. We fully expect it to change over time dependent on what we learn from analytics, testing and users.
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
- build content to meet specific user needs.
How users read
Users typically only read between 20% to 28% of a web page and even less when they’re impatient to complete a service as quickly as possible.
This section provides background to why our guidance for creating content, and the style set out in this guide, is the way it is.
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.
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.
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.
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 users 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.
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.
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.
- guidance on specific points of style, e.g. abbreviations and numbers
- nottinghamshire.gov.uk style for specific words and phrases, in terms of spelling, hyphenation and capitalisation.
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 or by testing a representative sample.
Don’t use an acronym if you’re not going to use it again later on the same page.
Use the active rather than passive voice. This helps to write concise, clear content.
Addressing the user
Address the user as ‘you’ where possible. Make best use of direct appeals to get involved or take action, eg ‘Apply for your waste permit’.
Don’t use Americanisms. You ‘fill in’ a form, not ‘fill out’.
Use the ‘ise’ rather than ‘ize’ suffix.
Use ‘and’ rather than an ‘&’.
Never refer to Nottinghamshire County Council as ‘the Authority’. Where needed use ‘local authority’ lower case.
(see ‘Words to avoid’)
Only use bold to refer to text from interfaces in technical documentation or instructions.
You can use bold to explain what field a user needs to fill in on a form, or what button they need to select. For example: “Select Continue. The Verify Certificate window opens.”
Use bold sparingly. Using it too much will make it difficult for users to know which parts of your content they need to pay the most attention to.
Do not use bold in other situations, for example to emphasise text.
To emphasise words or phrases, you can:
- front-load sentences
- use headings
- use bullets.
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.
Use (round brackets).
Bullet points make text easier to read. Here’s how to use them:
- wherever possible, 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 use bullets for the sake of it - if a paragraphed sentence is appropriate, use that instead
- don’t put ‘or' 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.
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).
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.
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.
- Website and email: Councillor Joe Bloggs
- Social media: Coun Joe Bloggs
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.
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.
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 which are:
- 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.
We refer to GOV.UK’s guidance on inclusive communication when writing about disability.
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.
eg, etc and ie
Use sparingly and consider the audience when abbreviating as some users are not familiar with what they mean.
Where they are used don’t use full stops after or between these notations.
Write email addresses in full, in lower case and as active links. Don’t include any other words as part of the link.
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 user. 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.
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.
Always use lower case, even when referring to the current administration.
One word, lower case.
- ‘re-‘ words starting with ‘e’, eg re-evaluate
If in doubt don’t use a hyphen unless it is confusing without one. Check the Oxford English Dictionary for Writers and Editors.
Don’t use italics. Use single quotation marks if referring to a document, scheme or initiative.
Specific job titles are upper case, eg Council Leader, Chief Executive.
Generic job titles are lower case, eg director, councillor.
When using links in content:
- 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.
Should be bulleted to make them easier to read – see Bullet points.
Very long lists can be written as a paragraph with a lead-in sentence if it looks better.
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.
Don’t use ‘Local Council’, see also ‘Authority’. Use ‘we’ wherever possible. Where you need to use it make it lower case.
See ‘words to avoid’.
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.
Never use the abbreviation NCC
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’ or 'we'.
Numbers up to and including ten are written in full (three, five, nine) unless you’re talking about a step, a point in a list or another situation where using the numeral makes more sense: ‘in point 1 of the design instructions’, for example.
11 and over are given in figures unless the number starts a sentence, when it should be written out in full (Thirty-four, for example) (except where it starts a title or subheading).
For numerals over 999 - insert a comma for clarity: 9,000
Spell out common fractions like one-half.
Use a % sign for percentages: 50%
Use a 0 where there’s no digit before the decimal point.
Use ‘500 to 900’ and not ‘500-900’ (except in tables).
Addresses: use ‘to’ in address ranges: 49 to 53 Cherry Street
Lower case and not in inverted commas.
Both words should be lower case unless using the full name of the council.
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 users.
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.
Do not use proforma - say what it is in plain English: a template or form, for example. Be specific about what to do with it.
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.
Don’t use long sentences – check any sentence of more than 25 words with a view to splitting it to make it shorter.
There is more advice on GOV.UK on writing short sentences.
Use only one space after a full stop, not two.
(see ‘Quotes and speech marks')
Use numbered steps instead of bullet points to guide a user 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)
- be 140 characters or less
- end with a full stop
- not repeat the title or body text
- be clear and specific.
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.
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.
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.
Both words should be lower case unless using the full name of the council.
Tone of voice
Write conversationally – picture the user and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.
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, 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.
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. 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 users to do what they need to do faster.
The words to avoid list can be found on GOV.UK.
Refer to users as ‘you’ so they feel we’re talking to them personally.