Keeping it stylish
We editors like to keep ourselves in style. I'm not saying we're obsessed with the sartorial (although we do enjoy a nice cable-knit jumper), just that we like to make sure we're following and updating our Editorial style guide. These are the guidelines that help us, and other content creators, keep the website's content clear and consistent.
Clarity for us means making our content accessible to all (including those using screen readers and translation tools) and writing in plain English by avoiding jargon and idioms in our marketing, PR and informative content. This isn't 'dumbing down', it's writing so that everyone can understand it without losing the meaning.
Consistency is about giving the user a smooth journey through the site. The importance of this (or a warm wool jumper) should not be underestimated. If you visit a website and every page has a different colour scheme and layout, you'll probably be a bit confused. You might even think you've accidently jumped to a different site. In the same way, inconsistent writing styles can have a jarring effect on the user and make their experience confusing. Imagine thinking you're in cable knit only to look down and see a string vest. Not pleasant.
Having a consistent writing style also helps us create our online identity. When we consistently use the same words, and specifically the same meanings for words, users can recognise us more easily in a crowded internet. Our writing style is our identity, like a jumper you'd wear all the time that everyone agrees is 'very you'.
What we're wearing this season
The problem with our cable-knit jumper is that it's a bit bulky. A tad cumbersome. Also, it makes our neck itch, but that's nothing to do with the style guide. The jumper needs reknitting into one that's easier to wear, lighter, with detachable arms perhaps. And now I'm stretching it. The metaphor, not the jumper.
The Editorial style guide is similarly unwieldy. It's currently one page, arranged in sections like 'General style preferences' and 'University references'. As full of useful information as it is, you really have to know where to look to find what you want. In many cases, you have to search the page for a specific word, hoping it pulls up the right results.
From a maintenance point of view, this structure makes it difficult to add or amend the content. We have to fit it into one of the existing sections or create a new one, making it harder for users to work out where they should look for answers. Some things need more detailed explanations, which we can't add now without them clogging up the page.
We're fans of the Guardian and Observer style guide and the Gov.uk style guide as examples of good practice. Both are arranged alphabetically, rather than in thematic sections, so it's easier to guess what word to search for. Both provide short comments on points of style, but for some longer explanations, the Gov.uk style guide links to other guides.
Next season's styles
Based on these style guides, our plan is to rearrange our style guide into an A-Z of everything. Users will be able to search a single page for a point of style, but there will be aliases to make everything easier to find. For example, if you search 'lower case', you'll be told to see 'Capitalisation'. If you look for 'dot dot dot', you'll be pointed towards 'Ellipsis'.
In most cases, we'll give you a brief explanation of the point of style, how to use it, and examples of house style. Some things need a little (or a lot) more detail. For these, we'll link out to other Guide pages. These will cover things like:
- inclusive language
- academic terms
- words to avoid
These points are all covered in the current style guide, but by giving them their own Guide pages we'll be able to go into them in much more detail. We'll be able to expand our explanations of inclusive language, for example, and give a much fuller list of words to avoid, a useful piece of content in the campaign for clarity.
Keeping ahead of the trends
We'll continue to add to the style guide and improve it. The English language, like fashion, is constantly evolving. New words are always being invented and old words are always being misused, which means we always have plenty to add to the list of words to avoid. Here are a few of my current 'favourites':
Style for everyone
Cable-knit jumpers are not for everyone, but the Editorial style guide certainly is. Anyone writing marketing, PR or informative content for the website should refer to it, not just the Digital Content team. It's also useful for people writing on the blog or even in print. Achieving consistency across all University communications is a big challenge, but having a single style guide to follow is a good step towards this.
The important thing is for everyone to keep the style guide in mind and use it as they write. This can be hard to do, even as an editor responsible for maintaining it. It takes a critical eye and an awareness of the types of things that you might need to check. Things like house style for quotation marks, bullet points or commas, whether 'biannual' means twice a year or every two years, how to write about currency, how to write the plural of 'master's degree', whether we hyphenate 'full-time', whether 'instalment' has one 'l' or two...
These are the things I dream about.
If you have any suggestions to improve the style guide, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.