Writing for GOV.UK

Government Digital Service

January 7
16:22 2021

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

Do not publish everything you can online.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

People do not 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 individuals 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 its 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 do not 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 - theres no excuse for putting unnecessarily complicated writing in the way of peoples understanding.

Writing well for specialists

Government experts often say that because theyre writing technical or complex content for a specialist audience, they do not 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 (for example, 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 do not want to read it if theres an alternative. This is because people with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They do not have time to pore through reams of dry, complicated prose.

Technical terms

Where you need to use technical terms, you can. Theyre 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. Its 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 youll be writing a plain English summary.

Where evidence shows theres a clear user need for including a legal term, for example bona vacantia, always explain it in plain English.

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

If you feel that must does not have enough emphasis, then use legal requirement, legally entitled and so on. For example: Once your child is registered at school, youre legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly.

When deciding whether to use must or legally entitled, 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 will not 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.

Do not use footnotes on documents. Theyre 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 its not, leave it out.

Know your audience

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

To understand your audience you should know:

  • how they behave, what theyre 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 theyll use to search for content

When you have more than one audience, make your writing as easy to read as possible so its 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 youre 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 youll write in a way they can understand easily and quickly - so you do not 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 youre writing for specialists.

Common words

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

By age 9, youre 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 5,000 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 theyre 9 years old.

People also do not 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 do not 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 theyre 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, were 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 do not bounce around like other users.They also cannot fully understand a sentence if its 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.

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