The writing style of darlington.gov.uk

We want our online services to be easy to use and available to everyone. How we write content and design services will have a big role to play in achieving this. The following guidance will explain how to write for this website.

This guide is based on the Gov.uk writing guide[external link] and the Plain English Campaign [external link]. Refer to the Gov.uk guide for anything that is not covered here.

Target audience and reading age

Is there an audience for this content?

Who is going to read this? What do they need to know? If you are answering either of these questions with "I don't know" you don't need to add the content to the website. Adding content which people are not going to read means you will make it harder to find the useful content.

Reading age

The audience for this website is every resident of Darlington and anyone who wants to do business with or visit the town. With such a wide variety of people who could potentially visit this website we need to make sure it is accessible to everyone.

By the age of 9 years old you have built a vocabulary of around 5000 common words. These are the words you use every day and even as adults will find these easier to read than words you have learnt since.  

You should write all content on darlington.gov.uk so that a 9 year old could understand it. Even if you are writing for an adult audience it will be easier for them to read and understand.  

Use theHemingway Editor[external link] to check that your content is hitting the 9 year old target. The Hemingway Editor is a US based tool that works based on US school grades. You should be aiming to target your pages to around the 4th Grade.

Plain English

Plain English must be used when writing content on this website. The guidance here is based on advice from the Plain English Campaign[external link]. Plain English looks at;

  • keeping your sentences short
  • use an active voice
  • use 'you' and 'we'
  • using words that are appropriate to the reader
  • don't be afraid to give instructions
  • avoid normalisations
  • use lists

Keep your content concise

Long blocks of text are hard to read. If you can explain your message in a shorter way, do it. People come to this website for information or to access a service, they're not here to browse. Keep your content short so that they can quickly find what they're looking for. 

Keeping sentences to a length of 15-20 words helps you to keep your message clear and concise.  Sentences should have one main idea and maybe a related idea. Most longer sentences can be broken up into shorter ones.

Use an active voice

Try to use active verbs in your content especially when giving instructions.  Active sentences are shorter and usually easier to understand.  For example;

The road had to be closed by the police (Passive)
The police had to close the road (Active)

The window was smashed by the ball (Passive)
The ball smashed the window (Active)

Use 'you' and 'we'

Try to call the reader 'you', you wouldn't call them the applicant if you were speaking to them face to face or over the phone.  When talking about what the council will do always refer to us as 'we'.  Some examples from the Plain English Campaign;

Applicants must send us...
You must send us...

We always tell customers before we...
We will tell you before we...

Advice is available from...
You can get advice from

Using words that are appropriate to the reader

When talking to the reader, say exactly what you mean using the simplest words that fit.  Using simple words rather than jargon will help the reader understand what you are trying to say.  It will also help our search find what the reader may type into the search box if you're using the same words that they do.  There is a list of words to avoid later on.  We regularly scan this site for this list of words and replace them with simpler words when we find them. 

Don't be afraid to give instructions

People will come to our site for information or to access a service, don't be afraid to tell them how to access our services.  Be clear and keep your instructions short so that they can not be mistaken.  

You should have your applications with us by the end of October.
Applications must be submitted by 31 October.

Applicants should attach photo ID to their application form.
You must attach photo ID to your application form.

Avoid normalisations

The Plain English campaign explain normalisations as...

A nominalisation is a type of abstract noun. In other words, it is the name of something that isn't a physical object, such as a process, technique or
emotion.

Nominalisations are formed from verbs.
For example:

Verbs and normalisations
Verb Normalisation
complete completion
introduce introduction
provide provision
fail failure
arrange arrangement
investigate investigation

So what's wrong with them?

The problem is that often they are used instead of the verbs they come from. And because they are merely the names of things, they sound as if nothing is actually
happening in the sentence. Like passive verbs, too many of them make writing very dull and heavy-going.

Here are some examples.

We had a discussion about the matter.
We discussed the matter.

There will be a stoppage of trains by drivers.
Drivers will stop the trains.

The implementation of the method has been done by a team.
A team has implemented the method.

Use lists

Lists are a good way to show related information. When listing items you should use bullet points rather than numbers or letters as it means the reader doesn't have to take in any additional information.

Lists that are part of a continuous sentence should start with a lowercase letter and end in a semicolon.  For example;

If you can prove that;

  • your parking ticket was displayed correctly;
  • your ticket had not run out of time; and
  • you were parked between the lines of the bay;

you will not get a parking fine.

If you only needed to prove one point in the list you would replace the 'and' with an 'or'. 

Dates

  • use upper case for months: January, February
  • do not use a comma between the month and year: 4 June 2017
  • avoid using 1st, 2nd, 3rd (except when referring to 3rd parties)
  • format as: 1 January 2019 or 1 Jan 2019 is space if an issue