Writing for the web

Writing for the Web: What we learned from GOV.UK

How best to get your message across when writing online
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Shaun Curran


14 Oct 2020

When building departmental services that will be linked from GOV.UK, communication is key. Making sure users can easily grasp complex information and understand the process is essential to the success of any service. The only way to ensure that is to follow some tried and tested rules for when writing for the web.

Here are the key lessons we learned from writing for GOV.UK.

Know Your audience

This may sound like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t understand who their target audience is. If you don’t appreciate who your audience are or what they want from you, then you will never be able to connect with them properly. Be clear about who you are writing for and why. When writing for GOV.UK, we always thought about what information users needed to know, what questions we needed to ask, and the type of language we used.

Put together a style guide

All newspapers, major publications and organisations will have a style guide. This is a set of rules to follow when writing. This can be everything from the words you capitalise to the way you write numbers (do you spell numbers one to nine or write numbers 1 to 9?) These rules can be as extensive or limited as you wish – GOV.UK has a particularly lengthy style guide - but either way it will help your communications if you have consistency across everything you write.

Keep language simple and familiar

When trying to get a point across, simplicity is key. It’s harder than you think. To be concise and accurate is a learned skill. The temptation to get the thesaurus out and make your writing flowery and over the top is there for every writer. But studies show that on average the UK population has a reading age of 9-years-old. That’s right - most people don’t learn many new words after the age of 9. People respond to language they can understand, so use plain English, avoid technical language where possible and don’t overcomplicate unnecessarily. 

Write in short sentences

It’s easy to think that a short sentence is the enemy of detail. But you don’t need to write endless sentences to make a point. If your sentence is longer than 25 words, take another look at it. Chances are it can be reworded to be more concise without losing any of the meaning.

Use the active voice

This might sound scary and technical, but it’s simply a way of saying that your writing should be direct and concise rather than passive. Sentences that use the active voice follow a subject, verb, object structure, such as “the man chased the car”. Think about these two sentences: “We can develop your website” is better than “Your website can be developed by us”. Why? It gives a strong, direct and clear tone that readers respond to.

Get the key information at the top

If there’s one thing the internet has done, it’s lessen everyone’s attention span. So it’s more vital than ever to get all the key information right at the start of your text. This is called the inverted pyramid model – start off with the most essential information at the top of the page, and then work your way to the least important, just like an upside down pyramid. There’s no point writing about your great product if you bury the most important part at the bottom and nobody bothers to read that far.

Get keywords into titles

Headlines have always been a key way of grabbing the reader’s attention, and it’s no different when writing for the web. A good heading/title can give the reader a very quick overview of what they are about to read, while making them want to read on. Make sure your titles use as many relevant words as possible. This also helps with SEO. People wanting to know about coronavirus will undoubtedly type the word into search engines, so it would be foolish to not use the word in your title.

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