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Introduction - NICS Web style guide

About the Web style guide

  • Northern Ireland government aims to achieve a professional and consistent style and tone on the web. The Web style guide is an essential tool in achieving this objective.
  • Much of the content currently on government websites, for example, corporate plans, consultation documents, reports, and other publications, was not written specifically for the Web. These documents are important, but should not be the primary content of a website.
  • These guides will help you to write content specifically for the Web, to help your readers understand what you do, use your services, and find the larger reports and documents they may want from time to time.
  • Go straight to the contents

Who the guide is for

  • Managers, writers, and editors of Northern Ireland government and related websites
  • For both public websites and intranets.

The information here is intended for non-technical users and technical terminology is avoided where possible. If you have any questions about the technical aspects of your website, your department's web manager will be able to help you.

Guidance on accessibility

Guidance has been prepared on the standards to be met to make sure that government websites can be accessed by everyone. This can be found at http://online.bds.nics.gov.uk/acc.

Guidance on corporate identity

The corporate identity manual for use by all NI departments and their agencies can be found at www.northernireland.gov.uk/identity.

Information on how the identity should be used on websites is in section 3.

How people read on the Web

People read differently on the Web. They are impatient, so they scan read, their eyes running quickly over the text. It's harder to read from a screen than from print, so people like shorter pieces of content. Writing for the Web involves being clear and concise at all times. You need to write simply. You need to get to the point as quickly as possible. This Style Guide is about helping you do just that.

Style and tone

Readers are very action-oriented when they come to your website. It is much easier to engage them with the second person voice - YOU. Where possible, write content that directly relates to the needs of your readers. Avoid starting a heading or sentence that begins with the name of your department or the name of some initiative. Rather, focus on what the benefit is for the reader.

When writing for the Web you must always seek to get the reader's attention as quickly as possible. Assume that the first question everyone asks is "What's in it for me?"

The core characteristics that Northern Ireland government websites should exhibit include:

  • Clear, simple and unambiguous language
  • Content that is informative and useful
  • Content that is concise and to the point
  • Content that is authoritative but friendly
  • Content that is action-orientated.

Clarity is the single most important characteristic your content should exhibit. If it is not absolutely clear to you, don't publish it. Simple writing is not simplistic. Simple writing is hard work. Make sure your content is always informative. What will the reader know after reading what you have written?

People will not read long documents on the Web. You've got to keep your content concise and to-the-point at all times. Be ruthless with editing. Chop away all those unnecessary sentences and paragraphs.

You need to strike a careful balance between a tone that is authoritative and formal and one that is friendly and engaging. If the tone is too formal, it can be off-putting. However, if it's too informal, it may not come across as credible and authoritative. Using a second person voice helps to create a friendly tone, but don't get too friendly. Avoid colloquialisms and humour.

Keep content action-orientated. Writing for the Web is about writing content that is linked. A link gives a reader an opportunity to act. You haven't written Web content until you've written its links. Always ask the question, "What do I want the reader to do as a result of reading this content?"

At the end of every piece of content there should be at least one choice of action, such as:

  • Read the full story
  • Fill out the form
  • Get further information
  • Join a newsletter

Writing effectively for the Web

Writing for the Web is not the same as writing for print because people read differently on the Web. The fact that people scan read on the Web has an impact on how we write:

  • Web documents
  • Headings
  • Summaries
  • Sentences
  • Paragraphs
  • List and bullet points.