Summary

Guidance on content style, based upon the Government Digital Service GOV.UK editorial style guide and suitable for use creating content on mygov.scot.


Summary

Guidance on content style for mygov.scot, based upon the Government Digital Service GOV.UK editorial style guide.

Please note this document is currently in draft status and may be subject to change. We are happy to receive feedback on this document via the channels in the footer.

Writing for mygov.scot

Vision

mygov.scot is the place for people in Scotland to access public services that are easy to find and simple to use – services so convenient, people choose digital first.

Editorial aims

We aim to work closely and in partnership with public sector organisations to put user needs at the forefront of service delivery and design. It will mean that people can quickly and easily find the service they need without having to know who provides it.

Only user-led, service-oriented and customer-focused content makes it onto mygov.scot. It is a place for Scotland’s people, not policy.

Citizens will visit mygov.scot only if they have a need to know or do something. They want to find out how to answer that need as quickly and as easily as possible.

Users are ‘reading to do’.

Every item of content on mygov.scot serves a specific purpose, directly answering user needs quickly and clearly. Each content item should explain just enough to complete the immediate task – and no more.

We don’t give out general information.

Research shows that citizens’ digital queries usually begin with a search engine. All content on mygov.scot must be optimised for search engines so that citizens can find the correct information as quickly as possible.

Publishing principles

The role of content designers is to turn complex information into content that is easy to understand and to provide clear ‘how to’ styled instructions.

User needs

Content items should directly respond to user needs that have been verified through the discovery process. A user need is a specific question that we know users ask in relation to a topic. Each need has been verified through the use of analytics, user research and stakeholder engagement, and it has been allocated a unique identifying number.

Generally, user needs appear in the form of a sentence:

As a citizen, I want to know how much daycare costs so that I can decide if I can afford daycare for my child.

Because this is very large project, this user need is rather general. In fact, the true story of a user is much more personal and probably looks something like this:

As a low-income single working mum, I need to know how much day care costs so that I can figure out how to have my child cared for whilst I am at work.

Reading into a user need in this way allows you to empathise with the real people that will be using mygov.scot.

Always remember that there is a real person behind every user need. Write to that person.

Some content items may answer multiple needs. These will often be presented in the format of a guide, or as an article containing several headed paragraphs along a single theme.

Stages of creation:

Stage 1: Assessment

Content designer assesses a content item to ensure that it meets the:

  1. user need(s) it has been written to answer
  2. needs of people living in, working in or visiting Scotland
  3. editorial and search engine optimisation (SEO) guidance set out in this guide
  4. internationally established accessibility standards

Stage 2: Creation

Depending on the source, quality and complexity of the content, the designer then edits, revises or re-writes the content along the lines with mygov.scot editorial guidelines.

These can include:

  • extensively editing existing content from a partner organisation
  • updating or making minor edits to existing content from a known source for use on mygov.scot such as changing the name of a service provider or signpost to a different URL
  • creating entirely new content in collaboration with a subject matter expert (SME)

Stage 3: Peer review

Pass to a peer to review for you.

Stage 4: Fact check

Ensure the content item is factually accurate, either by fact checking with a stakeholder or within the team.

Stage 5: Sign-off

Ensure the content item has been signed off.

Stage 6: Publish

Trust and confidence in mygov.scot are paramount, so the fact-checking and sign-off processes must be followed appropriately.

Content that is too specialised for inclusion on mygov.scot should instead be referenced or signposted.

About this guide

We have used the GOV.UK content style guide as the starting point for our own guide. GOV.UK content will appear on or be accessible from mygov.scot and it makes sense to draw on the extensive user testing and analysis carried out by Government Digital Service (GDS), the team behind GOV.UK.

We have reproduced, revised and added to the information made available by Government Digital Service under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Consistency is important: users can find and process what they need more easily if webpages behave the way they expect them to – in terms of design, structure and content. Using this style guide will help us to make all mygov.scot content readable, understandable and accessible.

We take all of the writing for the web points into account when we write for mygov.scot. Then we add the following points:

Active voice

Use the active rather than passive voice – it’s more direct and engaging. This will help us to write concise, clear content that is easy for the user to understand and act on.

Example: Write ‘you can’ rather than ‘you may be able to’.

Tone of voice

Every piece of content on mygov.scot has a purpose. We respond to user needs with specific information or instructions. We don’t give out general information. We certainly don’t offer our opinion or give advice.

Get straight to the point, without being abrupt.

Write conversationally. Use contractions and keywords that you know the audience actually uses. Use analytics and other sources to help you decide which terms are most appropriate.

Don’t be too informal. It’s important to retain an air of authority and dependability and overly chatty familiar or informal text makes the site appear unprofessional.

Example: use ‘call us’ instead of ‘give us a ring’.

Address the user appropriately. Use ‘you’ wherever possible, without being too insistent. Content on the site often makes a direct appeal to citizens and businesses to get involved or to take action.

Example: ‘You can contact HMRC by phone or email’ or ‘Pay your car tax’.

Refer to the Scottish Government as ‘we’. Be clear and consistent. Avoid using complex words or sentence structures that could confuse the reader. Users must feel they can trust mygov.scot to be ultimate authority on all matters devolved to Scotland.

Avoid duplication

Duplicate content confuses the user, damaging the credibility of content. If there are two pieces of information on a subject, how can the user be sure there’s not a third item that they’ve missed? Users will end up calling a helpline because they aren’t certain they have all of the information.

If something is written once and links to the relevant information easily and well, people are more likely to trust the content.

Look around. What are you and other teams across central government, NDPBs, health boards and local authorities publishing? Will mygov.scot users see a coherent view of public services in Scotland? Are they organised in a logical fashion?

When writing a content item for mygov.scot, first check that the user need hasn’t already been covered somewhere else on the website. Each user need has a unique number that identifies it. Search for this in the publishing tool to see if it is already answered somewhere else. Then you can decide which content is best for the site.

It’s important to note that search engines regard duplicate content as an indicator of a low quality site. Including duplicate content could therefore harm the search performance of mygov.scot as a whole.

If a user need is answered with one content item, which links to related information easily and well, people are more likely to trust mygov.scot content.

Be concise

So that content is easily understandable, concise and relevant, it should be:

  • specific
  • informative
  • clear and concise
  • assertive, but not pushy
  • direct, but not rude
  • helpful, but not informal – friendliness can lead to a lack of precision and unnecessary words
  • serious, but not arrogant
  • emotionless and without bias – adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like ‘spin’

You should:

  • use contractions (e.g. ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’)
  • use the language people are using
  • use analytics and Google Trends to identify the keywords that people search for
  • not use long sentences with complicated sub-clauses

Use short, clear, complete sentences (Note: words ending in ‘–ion’ and ‘–ment’ tend to make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be.)

Gender-neutral text

Make sure text is gender neutral wherever possible. Use ‘them’, ‘their’ and ‘they’, and choose gender-neutral job titles, e.g. firefighter, police officer, etc.

Stick to the style guide

Much of this guide is based on a lot of user testing. By keeping to the style guide, we:

  • work to our user testing – what’s the point of publishing if we ignore our users?
  • save time – users don’t have to learn different conventions
  • eliminate minor mistakes
  • will find it easier to train new people
  • help users – some users will pick up on inconsistencies while reading, causing their focus to shift from what’s being said to how it’s being said
  • raise trust levels – if we are consistent, we are giving a coherent view

GDS undertook research on the impact of style guidesand is worth reading.

Write in plain English

Users don’t stop understanding text because it’s written clearly, but less educated users may not understand if you use complex language. This also applies to new speakers of English who are still developing their vocabularies.

mygov.scot is for everyone.

As government, we can’t discriminate because of education, age or nationality, so use plain English to make it accessible to as many people as possible. This isn’t just a list of words to avoid; it’s a way of writing.

Don’t use formal or long words where easy or short ones will do.

Examples  
accomplish do, finish
additional more
approximately about, roughly
assist help
complete fill in, finish
discuss talk about
during which time while
eligible for can get
establish find out, set up, show
in lieu of instead of, in place of
indicate show, suggest
obtain get, receive
option choice
purchase buy
provide give
receive get
regarding about, on
such as like
terminate end, stop
utilise use

Avoid any semblance of jargon, whether in the form of specific words or overly complex sentence structure.

We will also lose trust from users if we write in ‘government speak’.

Words that are too general and vague can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text.

We can do without these words:

  • agenda (unless it’s for a meeting)
  • advancing
  • collaborate (use ‘working with’)
  • combating
  • commit/pledge (we need to be more specific – we’re either doing something or we’re not)
  • countering
  • deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)
  • deploy (unless it’s military or software)
  • dialogue (we speak to people)
  • disincentivise (and incentivise)
  • empower
  • facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
  • focusing
  • foster (unless it’s children)
  • impact (as a verb)
  • initiate
  • key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’)
  • land (as a verb. Only use if you are talking about aircraft)
  • leverage (unless in the financial sense)
  • liaise
  • overarching
  • progress (as a verb – what are you actually doing?)
  • promote (unless you’re talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
  • robust
  • slimming down (processes don’t diet – we’re probably removing x amount of paperwork, etc.)
  • streamline
  • strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)
  • tackling (unless it’s rugby, football or some other sport)
  • transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
  • utilise

Always avoid metaphors. For example:

  • drive (you can only drive vehicles, not schemes or people)
  • drive out (unless it’s cattle)
  • going forward (unlikely we are giving travel directions)in order to (superfluous – don’t use it)
  • one-stop shop (we are government, not a retail outlet)
  • ring fencing

You can generally get rid of any of these words by breaking the term down into what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.

Write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you’re talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.

All audiences should understand our content. It’s not about ‘dumbing down’; it’s about making public services in Scotland easily accessible by all.

Senstivity and using inclusive language

It is important to recognise that people with people with health conditions or impairments may be sensitive about their conditions, and it is vital that we do not assume that they are defined by them. A person who uses a wheelchair is still a person, they just

Avoid Use Description
(the) handicapped, (the) disabled disabled people The word ‘disabled’ is a description not a group of people. Many people who need disability benefits and services do not identify with this term.
afflicted by, suffers from, victim of has [name of condition or impairment] Phrases like ‘suffers from’ which evoke discomfort or pity and suggest constant pain and a sense of hopelessness.
confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound wheelchair user Wheelchair users may not view themselves as ‘confined to’ a wheelchair, this presents a negative image. Try thinking of it as a mobility aid instead.
mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal with a cognitive or learning disability Be careful: the presence of a learning disability does not mean a person has a cognitive impairment or low intelligence; in many cases it’s quite the opposite. It simply means they do not learn in a conventional way
cripple, invalid disabled person Avoid negative terms that imply weakness or helplessness
spastic person with cerebral palsy Make sure the language used does not reinforce a negative stereotype.
able-bodied non-disabled Try not to highlight differences between people with and without physical challenges
mental-patient, insane, mad person with a mental health condition Judgemental descriptive terms are unhelpful
deaf and dumb, deaf mute sensory impairment, impairment Antiquated terms can alienate users
the blind people with visual impairments, blind people, blind and partially sighted people A disability should never be used to define a user
An epileptic / diabetic / depressive, etc. person with epilepsy / diabetes / depression or someone who has epilepsy / diabetes / depression Labelling users by their disabilities suggests their conditions define them
dwarf, midget someone with restricted growth or short stature Respect is paramount, and many terms have a negative and hurtful impact on individuals
fits, spells, attacks seizures Avoid melodramatic and highly descriptive terms

Language

  • Use a normal tone of voice, do not patronise or talk down.
  • Do not define a disabled person by their impairment. It causes offence to be given a medical label.
  • Take care to ensure that language used does not reinforce a negative stereotype.
  • Avoid labels that say nothing about the person and reinforce the impression that the disabled person is sick or dependent.
  • Avoid references that dehumanise, use instead a ‘person with…’ Never say ‘a victim of’ or ‘suffers from’.
  • Avoid collective nouns, such as ‘the disabled’. One exception is that many deaf people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL) consider themselves part of ‘the deaf community.’ They may describe themselves as ‘Deaf’, with a capital D, to emphasise their deaf identity. -I t is acceptable to use everyday language, for example, ‘see you later’, or ‘another pair of hands.’
  • Never attempt to speak or finish a sentence for the person you are talking to.
  • Address disabled people in the same way as you talk to everyone else.
  • Communicate directly to a disabled person, even if accompanied by an interpreter or companion.
  • Ensure the disabled person has a role equal to that of everyone else.

Positive form

Replace a negative form with a positive one wherever possible.

Examples:  
not able unable
not available unavailable
not forget remember
not omit include
not pay attention to ignore
not possible unfeasible/impossible
not sure unsure

Legal content can still be written in plain English. It’s important that users understand content and that we present complicated information simply.

Where evidence shows there’s a clear user need for including a legal term (e.g. ‘bona vacantia’), always explain it in plain English.

Where you need to use technical terms, you can. They’re not jargon. You just need to contain them within single quotes and explain what they mean the first time you use them.

Search results

Our need isn’t necessarily to acquire website traffic for mygov.scot. We need to get government information to where Scotland’s people can find it, whether on mygov.scot itself or in a search engine results page. Google will frequently ‘scrape’ sites for the answer to common questions, e.g. the price of a British passport.

Most people want to know the price of a passport before they apply. Well-structured content, with the answer included in the summary, means the price will appear in the search results. This means users don’t need to leave Google to get their information.

When they’re ready, users can click a link, read the rest of the information and apply. If you have a simple answer to a question, try to put it in the summary.

Spelling

Refer to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th edition (Oxford University Press, Oxford New York, 2011) for spelling and hyphenation.

  • Use British English rather than American English.
  • Choose ‘s’ spellings over ‘z’ forms, e.g., realise, organise, immunisation, organisation.
  • Exceptions include where it’s part of a specific name, e.g. ‘World Health Organization’.
  • All references to mygov.scot should be in lower case and contain a full stop before ‘scot’.

Read it aloud

Read each content item aloud and check there’s nothing superfluous. Always keep in mind the specific user need.

Ask yourself:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it flow?
  • Could it be put more simply or succinctly?
  • Will it make sense to a user unfamiliar with the public service involved?
  • Is any crucial information missing?
  • Does it tell the user more than they need to know at this stage? (They will be told what to do next after making contact with the service?)
  • Does it include the keywords that citizens use?
  • Does it answer the user need for the situation in Scotland? 

Why content design is different

Not all content on mygov.scot will appear in the form of long text. We don’t just write copy, we ‘design content’.

As a content team, we work with visual designers and developers to find out how best to present the information that will answer the user need. A tool, graphic or video may work better than copy in some cases.

Remember that a lot of people you will deal with have no knowledge of user behaviour. They won’t understand why you want to change the legal language they’ve been using for the past 15 years to something in plain English.

Search engine optimisation (SEO)

Why optimise content for search engines

Your content may answer user needs simply and succinctly, but no one will read it if it’s too difficult to find.

Research shows that search engines are where most users start their search for information.

When designing content it’s important to identify words and terms that people are actually entering into search engines to try to find what they need, and to include those terms at various key points within the content.

You’ll have to use the vocabulary they use, and that starts with your page title, summary and first paragraph, so that users can find it.

mygov.scot keyword control list

As part of mygov.scot’s SEO strategy, a broad keyword control list identifies the two or three most common keywords associated with a broad content category, e.g. ‘unemployment benefit’, ‘jobseeker’s allowance’.

Use these keywords to guide your identification of the exact keywords for a particular content item.

Use search tools like SEMrush, Google Trends and Google AdWords Keyword Planner to find the keywords that people are searching for in external search engines like Google. What you’re calling the need might not be what your users are calling it

SEMrush will show you the terms that people are using to search for a particular subject, and how popular they are. It is particularly helpful for identifying any related terms or synonyms.

For example, users looking for financial support whilst unemployed may enter the term ‘jobseeker’s allowance’ most frequently, but ‘JSA’ and ‘unemployment benefit’ could also receive a significant amount of traffic.

To check the popularity of your preferred term, enter it into the SEMrush search field. Make sure results are filtered for the UK.

Volume figures aren’t exact, so focus on trends and relative popularity over numbers. Use multiple tools to make big decisions based on data, like which keywords to use in a title.

Google Trends allows you to compare alternative keywords, and shows seasonal trends.

Finalise keyword selection with Google AdWords

The Google AdWords Keyword Planner can help to finalise the keyword selection for a particular content item, as it shows detailed search level data around a particular keyword.

For example, the tool shows that ‘claim jobseeker’s allowance’ is searched for more frequently than‘get jobseeker’s allowance’ or ‘apply for jobseeker’s allowance’.

This would help to confirm the selection of ‘how to claim jobseeker’s allowance’ as the primary keyword phrase for that piece of content.

Optimise content

Once you know the most popular keywords you can prioritise them in the:

  • title
  • headings
  • introductions/summaries
  • chapter/part titles
  • body copy
  • metadata descriptions

You can cover more than one keyword. For example, you can use ‘jobseeker’s’ and ‘allowance’ throughout the page but also include ‘JSA’ and ‘unemployment benefit’ in the first sentence, since a lot of people also search using these terms.

Get a more detailed understanding of your need

As well as the keywords that people are using in search, you can uncover the specific themes that people are searching for within a subject with the search tools above.

For example, the Google AdWords Keyword Planner also shows you terms related to ‘jobseeker’s allowance’. In its report, the long list of keywords is aggregated into themes, and you can click on each theme heading to get the different keywords.

The report shows that the following topics should be addressed within this content item:

  • Jobcentre Plus
  • Housing Benefit

Meta descriptions for mainstream content

A meta description is a short summary of a web page, which search engines return in their results pages. A meta description also helps you to clarify the purpose of a page to the user.

Keywords included in meta descriptions will be displayed in bold in search engine results pages when these match a user’s query. This helps to confirm the relevance of the content item to the user before they decide to click and follow the link.

Content formats

Guides / benefits / schemes

Provide a brief overview that front-loads popular keywords, and then list other popular keywords in the format below. You can use meta descriptions to clarify ambiguities around audience, or to differentiate titles that are similar:

Example: Holiday entitlement or annual leave – information for employers and workers on entitlement, calculating leave, taking leave, accruing leave and disputes.

Quick answers

Use the first sentence if it adequately sums up the content and includes popular keywords. If it doesn’t, consider changing the first sentence – it should be focused and optimised.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

FAQs are bad. We don’t like them. If you write content by starting with user needs, you won’t need to use FAQs.

This is because FAQs:

  • duplicate other content on the site
  • can’t be front-loaded (putting the most important words users will search for first), which makes usability difficult
  • are usually not questions frequently asked by the user, but a ‘dumping ground’ for important information
  • mean that content is not where users expect to find it; it needs to be in context

Accessible PDFs

The best way to create an accessible PDF is to create an accessible source document.

A source document is tagged when it’s converted into a PDF. The PDF tag tree reflects the structure of the document, and it’s this structure that assistive technologies like screen readers use to navigate the document.

In Microsoft Word

Use the styles and features available in Word to format your content and give it structure. This will make it easier to convert your source document into a PDF because it lays the groundwork for the PDF tag tree.

Use headings Use the heading styles in Word to create a logical document structure. Don’t increase the size of text or make it bold to create the appearance of headings.

Treat your document like a book. It should have one title (level one heading) and multiple chapters (level two headings). Within each chapter there may be multiple sections (level three headings) and subsections (level four headings).

Use lists Use the list styles in Word to group together related items. Use a numbered list where the items follow a specific sequence. Don’t use punctuation or other markers to create the illusion of a list.

Create a table of contents If your document is longer than a few pages, use Word to automatically create a table of contents based on your heading structure. Don’t use lists and links to manually create a table of contents.

Use readable body text

  • Alignment: Use left aligned text (unless the language of your document is read right to left). Don’t use justified text in your document.
  • Font: Choose a sans serif font and use the styles in Word to set it as the default
  • Font size: Always use a minimum size of 12pt.
  • Headers and footers: If you need to include footnotes or other text of a smaller size, increase the size of the body text to 14pt, rather than reduce the size of text below 12pt.
  • Italics and Boldface: Don’t use chunks of italicised or capitalised text, and don’t underline text unless it’s a link.

Use good colour contrast Use foreground/background colours for text that have a good contrast ratio. 4.5:1 ratio recommended by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 is a good minimum.

Don’t use colour or shape as the only way to identify something in your document. Use text labels or descriptions instead.

Use data tables Use tables with column headings to display data. Don’t use tables to make cosmetic changes to the layout of the document.

Provide text descriptions Use Word to add text descriptions to all important images in the document. Make sure the text description includes all of the information contained within, or conveyed by, the image.

In Adobe Acrobat

Use Adobe Acrobat Pro to convert your Word document into a PDF. Use the Convert to PDF option under the Adobe menu in Microsoft Word to do this. This will make sure that Acrobat picks up the accessibility you have built into your source document.

Set the document language Set the language of the document. Go to File > Properties > Advanced and select a language from the Language menu.

Check the tag tree All content must be tagged, marked as an artefact (background content) or removed from the tag tree. Use the Tags panel to review and edit the tag tree. If the PDF was converted from a well structured Word document, the tag tree should require little editing.

Check the tab order If the PDF contains form fields, use Advanced > Accessibility > Touch up reading order to check they can be navigated with the tab key in a logical order. If the tab order needs improving, use the Order panel to drag and drop the fields into the correct order.

Check the reading order Use the Tags panel to review and edit the reading order of the PDF. Don’t rely on the visual order of the PDF. The reading order is based on the structure of the PDF tag tree, which may not match the visual content order.

Check the reflow order Use View > Zoom > Reflow, then check that the PDF still has a logical reading order. Note: It can sometimes be difficult to guarantee a logical reflow order for PDFs with complex content.

Check text descriptions Go to Advanced > Accessibility > Touch up reading order and check that all images have text descriptions. If the text descriptions were present in the source Word document and the Convert to PDF option was used, the text descriptions should already be present in the PDF.

Remove empty tags Remove empty tags from the tag tree. Use the Tags panel to highlight and delete any empty tags from the tag tree.

Set decorative content Tag decorative content elements as artefacts. Use Advanced > Accessibility > Touch up reading order to select a decorative element, and use the Background button to make the element an artefact.

Check data tables Use the Tags panel to check the structure of data tables. The <table>, <tr> and <td> tags should be used to give data tables the proper structure.

Active links Use the Tags panel to check that links are active. Active links should be tagged with the <link> tag.

Check high contrast Use File > Preference > Accessibility to set a high contrast colour scheme, and check that the PDF remains readable. Note: It may not be possible to make the high contrast mode work in all PDFs, in which case you should be prepared to make a high contrast version available on request.

Display document title Display the document title instead of the file name. Go to File > Properties > Initial view and select Document title from the Show dropdown menu.

Before publication Once all of the above steps are complete, the PDF should be checked before it is published.

Full Adobe accessibility check Go to Advanced > Accessibility and select Full check. The PDF should pass the full check for WCAG 2.0 Level AA without any warnings.

Quick screen reader check Ask a screen reader user to read through the PDF. If no one is available to do this, use one of the following options instead.

Use NVDA Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free open source screen reader for Windows. It can be installed on the desktop or run from a portable USB thumb drive.

With NVDA running, open the PDF and use the following commands to check the PDF:

  • from the top of the PDF (with the numlock off), use Numpad 0 + Numpad 2 to read the PDF from top to bottom and check the reading order
  • use the Tab key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the tab order
  • use the H key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the heading structure
  • use the G key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check for text descriptions

Note: These commands will also work with the Jaws screen reader from Freedom Scientific.

Use VoiceOver All Apple Macs have VoiceOver built in. Turn VoiceOver on (or off) using Cmd + F5. With VoiceOver running, open the PDF and use the following commands to check the PDF: from the top of the PDF use a double finger down swipe, or Control + Cmd + A to read the PDF from top to bottom and check the reading order use the Tab key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the tab order.

Note: VoiceOver does not provide shortcut keys for navigating by headings or graphics.

Style points

Abbreviations

Do not use a full stop after abbreviated titles, such as Dr, but do use full stops as shown for these Latin abbreviations:

  • e.g.
  • i.e.
  • etc.

User testing has shown that some people are unfamiliar with such abbreviations, so consider your audience before abbreviating.

If you want to use the long form (‘for example’ instead of ‘e.g.’, ‘specifically’ instead of ‘i.e.’, etc.) then this is at the content designer’s discretion.

Acronyms

You can use an acronym to replace a name or term that appears frequently in a single content item (e.g. an article or guide). Don’t include an acronym unless you will use it several times later on in the same text.

Spell out the acronym in full the first time it is used, putting the acronym in brackets immediately afterwards. (Don’t use full stops in acronyms – BBC, not B.B.C.) From then on, use only the acronym in that specific content item.

Acronyms can be used for common nouns as well as proper nouns – e.g. gross domestic product (GDP).

There’s no need to spell out acronyms in common usage, e.g. DVLA, EU, HMRC, MSP, UK, USA, VAT. This includes government departments and schemes.

Quick reminder: Freedom of Information – you can make an FOI request but not a request under the FOI Act.

Americanisms

Don’t use Americanisms. You ‘fill in’ a form, not ‘fill out’ a form. You ‘wait for’ a reply, not ‘wait on’ a reply.

Ampersand

The ampersand symbol (&) should only appear in the logo image of an organisation or department. Always use ‘and’ in headings, subheadings and body copy.

Brackets

Use (round brackets), not [square brackets]. Avoid using brackets within brackets.

Bullet points and steps

Make good use of bullet point lists – they scan easily. Limit a single list to six or seven bullet points, and try to fit each bullet point to one line (and never more than two).

You can use bullet points to make text easier to read. Make sure that:

  • you always use a lead-in line ending with a colon
  • all of the bullets make sense following on from the lead-in line
  • you use lower case at the start of the bullet
  • you don’t use full stops within bullet points – where possible start another bullet point, or use commas or dashes to expand on an item
  • you don’t put ‘and’/‘or’ after any bullet
  • if you add links they appear within the text and not as the whole bullet
  • there is no full stop after the last bullet point

Don’t use full stops at the end of bullet points unless each is a complete sentence that can stand alone. (If this is the case, introduce the bullet points with a heading only and use sentence case throughout, starting each bullet point with a leading capital letter.)

Use numbered steps instead of bullet points to guide a user through a process. You don’t need a lead-in line and you can use links and downloads (with appropriate markdown) in steps. Each step ends with a full stop because each step should be a complete sentence.

Capitalisation

DON’T USE BLOCK CAPITALS FOR LARGE AMOUNTS OF TEXT, AS IT’S QUITE HARD TO READ.

Use sentence case for headings and subheadings.

Lower case is preferable but use capitalisation for:

  • directorates (specific government directorates – see below)
  • titles
  • buildings
  • place names
  • brand names
  • The Earth (i.e. our planet), Planet Earth and Earth sciences
  • faculties, departments, institutes and schools
  • job titles, ministers’ role titles, e.g. Minister for Housing and Welfare, Secretary of State for
  • Scotland
  • names of groups, directorates and organisations, e.g. Knowledge and Innovation Group
  • Parliament, the House; the Scottish Parliament, the Chamber
  • titles of specific acts or bills, e.g. Housing (Scotland) Bill (but use ‘the act’ or ‘the bill’ after the first
  • time you use the full act or bill title)
  • names of specific, named government schemes known to people outside government, e.g. Right
  • to Buy, Queen’s Awards for Enterprise
  • Rt Hon (note lack of full stops)
  • specific select committees, e.g. Scottish Affairs Select Committee
  • header cells in tables
  • titles of publications
  • World War 1 and World War 2 (note caps and numbers)

Don’t capitalise:

  • civil service
  • minister – never Minister, unless part of a specific job title, e.g. Minister for Parliamentary
  • Business
  • department or ministry – never Department or Ministry, unless referring to a specific one, e.g.
  • Ministry of Defence
  • group and directorate, unless referring to a specific group or directorate,
  • e.g. the Scottish Procurement and Commercial Directorate
  • white paper, green paper, command paper, House of Commons paper
  • sections or schedules within specific named acts, regulations or orders
  • director general (note no hyphen), deputy director, director, unless in
  • a specific job title
  • departmental board, executive board, the board
  • policy themes, e.g. sustainable communities, promoting economic growth,
  • enterprise areas
  • general mention of select committees (but do capitalise specific ones – see above)

    Capitals for government departments

    Use the following conventions for UK Government departments/Scottish Government directorates and NDPBs. A department/directorate/NDPB using an ampersand in its logo image is fine but use ‘and’ when writing in full text.

  • Agriculture, Food and Rural Communities Directorate
  • Attorney General’s Office (AGO)
  • Business Directorate
  • Cabinet Office (CO)
  • Children and Families Directorate
  • Commonwealth Games and Sport Directorate
  • Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)
  • Culture and Heritage Directorate
  • Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS)
  • Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS)
  • Department for International Development (DFID)
  • Department for Transport (DfT)
  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
  • Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
  • Department of Health (DH)
  • Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals
  • Disclosure Scotland
  • Education Maintenance Allowance Scotland (EMA Scotland)
  • Education Scotland
  • Energy and Climate Change Directorate
  • Environment and Forestry Directorate
  • Finance Directorate
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
  • Health and Social Care Integration Directorate
  • HM Treasury (HMT)
  • Home Office (HO)
  • Housing, Regeneration and Welfare Directorate
  • Justice Directorate
  • Learning Directorate
  • Legal Directorate
  • Local Government and Communities Directorate
  • Marine Scotland
  • Ministry of Defence (MOD)
  • National Museums Scotland (NMS)
  • National Records of Scotland (NRS)
  • Office of the Advocate General for Scotland
  • Office of the First Minister
  • Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Counsel
  • Police Scotland
  • Revenue Scotland (new body with tax powers)
  • Safer Communities Directorate
  • Scotland Office
  • Scottish Development International (SDI)
  • Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
  • Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
  • Scottish Procurement and Commercial Directorate
  • Scottish Public Pensions Agency (SPPA)
  • Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)
  • sportscotland
  • Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS)
  • Visit Scotland

Colons

Use a colon to introduce a list of bullet points. Elsewhere consider using an en dash, which is less formal and can help the copy to flow better.

Avoid using semicolons.

Contractions

Write the way you speak. Use simple contractions like ‘they’ve’ (they have), ‘we’ll’ (we will), ‘don’t’ (do not). Avoid using ‘should’ve’, ‘could’ve’, ‘would’ve’, etc. as these are hard to read.

Never use ‘we’ve got’ or ‘you’ve got to’ – it’s ‘we have’ or ‘you have to’.

Take care not to confuse the possessive pronoun ‘its’ with the contraction ‘it’s’ (it is).

Dates and times

We use ‘to’ in date and time ranges – not hyphens, en dashes or em dashes. For example:

  • tax year 2011 to 2012
  • Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm (put different days on a new line, don’t separate with a comma, etc.)
  • 10 November to 21 December
  • don’t use a comma between the month and year, e.g. 30 May 2014
  • when space is an issue, e.g. tables, publication titles, etc., you can use truncated months, e.g. Jan, Feb, Mar, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec
  • 5.30pm (not 1730hrs)
  • midnight, not 00.00
  • midday, not 12 noon, noon or 12pm
  • 10am to 11am (not 10–11am)
  • don’t use ‘quarter’ for dates; use the months, for example, ‘[dept] expenses, Jan to Mar 2013’

When referring to ‘today’ (e.g. in a news article) make sure you include the date as well. For example: ‘The minister announced today (14 June 2012) that…’

Email addresses

Write email addresses in full, in lower case and as active links. Don’t include any other words as part of the link.

En dash (−)

You can use an en dash (but not a hyphen) in place of a colon or brackets, or to add emphasis. Include a single space on either side of an en dash.

Choosing en dashes over brackets can give text a more contemporary feel. This is appropriate when writing progressive text in place of a colon:

Examples: You can fill in the form – paper or online version – to tell us about a change. It’s important to tell us about any changes immediately – so act now.

Formatting

Don’t underline words or use italics. Use ‘single quotation marks’ when referring to a document, scheme or initiative.

Don’t overdo the bold or it will lose its effect.

Full stops

Use a full stop at end of every sentence, including in summaries, except where the sentence ends on a website URL or an email address.

Geography and regions

Compass directions are all in lower case: the north, the south of England, the south-west, north-east Scotland, south Wales.

The same applies to wider regions: the west, western Europe.

Note the following: East End, West End (London), Middle East, Central America, North America, South America, Latin America, South East Asia, the Far East, the West/Western (when referring to Europe and North America).

If in doubt, refer to the New Oxford English Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

Always write out the full name of the area the first time you use it. You can use a capital for a shortened version of a specific area or region if it’s commonly known by that name, e.g. ‘the Pole’ for the North Pole.

Great Britain vs United Kingdom

Great Britain refers only to England, Scotland and Wales, and excludes Northern Ireland. If telling users about multiple areas, use ‘Scotland, England and Wales’ instead.

Use UK and United Kingdom in preference to Britain and British (UK business, UK foreign policy, ambassador and high commissioner). Note: British embassy, not UK embassy.

Headers and subheads

Use a leading capital letter for only the first word in a header or subhead – except where a proper noun (name) also appears.

If a header includes a colon the word that follows immediately after should also have a leading capital letter.

Hyphenation

Hyphenate ‘re-’ words starting with ‘e’, e.g. re-evaluate

Don’t hyphenate:
reinvent
reopen
reorder
reuse
cooperate
coordinate
email
ongoing

If in doubt, check the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th edition (2011) or the New Oxford English Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2005). If you’re still unsure, don’t use a hyphen unless omitting it would cause confusion.

Use hyphens for phrasal adjectives that come before the object, e.g. ‘up-to-date report’ (but not after – ‘the report is up to date’).

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

If you feel that ‘must’ doesn’t have enough emphasis, then use ‘legal requirement’, ‘legally entitled’, etc. For example: ‘Once your child is registered at school, you’re legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly’.

When deciding whether to use ‘must’ or ‘legally entitled’, etc., 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 won’t 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.

Front-load your link text with the relevant terms and make them active and specific. Always link to online services first. Offer offline alternatives afterwards (where possible).

Measurements

Use numerals and spell out measurements at first mention.

Abbreviating kilograms to kg is fine – you don’t need to spell it out.

If the measurement is more than 1 word, e.g. ‘kilometres per hour’ then spell it out the first time it is used with the abbreviation. From then on, abbreviate. If it is only mentioned once, don’t abbreviate.

Use Celsius for temperature, e.g. 37°C.

Numbers

Write all numbers in numerals (including 1 to 9) except where it’s part of a common expression and it would look strange, e.g. ‘one or two of them’. Use common sense.

‘One of the 13 words in this sentence is causing problems: this 1.’

This sentence would be better with ‘one’ as the final word.

If a number starts a sentence, write it out in full (‘Thirty-four hula hoops found in researcher’s filing cupboard’) except where it starts a header or subheading.

For numerals over 999 – insert a comma for clarity. ‘It was over 9,000’. Spell out common fractions, such as one-half, but use a % sign for percentages, i.e. 50%.

Use ‘500 to 900’ and not ‘500–900’ (except in tables).

Use MB not KB for anything over 1MB, e.g. 4MB not 4096KB. For under 1MB, use KB, e.g. 569KB not 0.55MB.

Keep it as accurate as possible and up to 2 decimal places. For example: 4.03MB.

Addresses: use ‘to’ in address ranges, for example: 49 to 53 Cherry Street.

Millions

Always use million in money (and billion), e.g. £138 million. Use millions in phrases, e.g. ‘millions of people’.

Ordinal numbers

Spell out first to ninth. After that use 10th, etc.

In tables, use numerals throughout.

Money

Use the £ symbol – £75. Don’t use decimals unless pence are included – for example use: £75.50 but not £75.00.

Don’t use ‘£0.xx million’ for amounts less than £1 million.

Write out ‘pence’ in full – ‘calls will cost 4 pence per minute from a landline’.

Organisations

An organisation is a single entity, so takes the singular form of a verb. E.g., ‘The Scottish Government is the devolved government for Scotland.’

The definite article can be used when referring to the organisation by its full name, but shouldn’t normally be used with the organisation’s acronym.

Example: You should contact the Driving Standards Agency. You should contact the DSA.

The definite article shouldn’t have a leading capital letter unless it’s part of a proper name, e.g. The Netherlands, The National Archives.

Use of the indefinite articles: use ‘an’ with silent ‘h’ words not hard ‘h’ words, e.g. ‘an honour’, ‘a hotel’.

Use ‘local council’ instead of ‘local authority’ where possible.

Oxford comma

Avoid using the Oxford comma except where doing so will help to prevent confusion.

Examples: Include your completed form, driving licence and a copy of your birth certificate. Find out information about holiday entitlement, calculating leave, taking leave, accruing leave, and disputes.

Plurals

Some nouns have an irregular plural form. If in doubt, refer to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th edition (2011).

Although datum is the proper singular form of data, it is rarely used. Use data for the singular and plural noun. Data agrees with the singular verb, however.

Examples: Your data is kept securely in our system. We will use your data if it helps us to progress your case. Noun plurals never take an apostrophe unless the possessive is being used.

Example: Watch MSPs take part in debate. Discuss the MSPs’ performance after the debate.

Quotes and speech marks

Single quotes

Use single quotes: in headlines for unusual terms that require explanation when referring to titles of publications, for example: Download the publication ‘Understanding Capital Gains Tax’ (PDF, 360KB)

Note: Use roman font (no single quotes) for book and newspaper titles (but use title case, as used by the publication) – e.g. New Oxford English Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

Double quotes

Use double quotes in body text for direct quotations of speech or source material. Enclose punctuation for direct speech inside the double quotes.

Never precede quoted speech with ‘that’. E.g. The First Minister said, “This is great news.”

In long passages of speech, open quotes for every new paragraph, but close quotes only at the end of the final paragraph.

Spaces

Use a single space only following a full stop – never a double space. Add spaces around an en dash, but not around an oblique – e.g. and/or.

Styling of mygov.scot

mygov.scot is always all lower case, even when it appears in a header or begins a sentence.

Telephone numbers

Use ‘Telephone: 011 111 111’ or ‘Mobile:’ not ‘Mob:’. Use spaces between city and local exchange, etc. Here are the different formats to use:

  • 01273 800 900
  • 020 7450 4000
  • 0800 890 567
  • 07771 900 900
  • 077718 300 300
  • +44 (0)20 7450 4000
  • +39 1 33 45 70 90

If possible, group the numbers into easily remembered units, e.g. 0800 80 70 60.

Titles

Remember all of the search engine optimisation points and use colons to introduce the subclause.

Good example: ‘Income Tax reform: Impact assessment’

Bad example: ‘An assessment of the impact of proposed reforms to Income Tax’

Transactions and services

These are pre-transaction pages. Use SEO to define the title, so if people search for ‘registry office’, put that in the summary or body text and then explain the proper term is ‘register office’.

Give one sentence on what the user can expect from the service – this will appear before the button.

‘What you need to know’ section: This is where you put information that the user will need to complete the transaction and information about how long it takes, how much there will be to pay etc.

You can add alternatives to the online transaction at the foot of the page.

Content formats

Answers

Answers assume prior knowledge and answer a popular and specific need (so you don’t need to explain terms or provide context). For example, the answer ‘National Minimum Wage rate’ should only give the rate, not information about what the National Minimum Wage is, how to pay it, etc. (although you should be clearly linking to related content that does).

Stick exclusively to the answer – don’t be tempted to include extra information, however useful this might appear to be.

Summary

  • one or two sentence(s) summing up the answer for common case (aim for one)
  • get the basic information quickly
  • not an introduction
  • use summary tags

Body

  • expand on summary with any necessary detail
  • be strict with information you include
  • stick to task
  • keep it concise; don’t overload it with caveats
  • no need to repeat info in subhead

Subheadings

  • keep as close to search terms as possible
  • avoid questions; use statements
  • no need for the ‘if’ (e.g. ‘You’re working abroad’)
  • H2 are primary subheadings

Formatting

  • Don’t break up text with too many subheadings
  • use formatting options (e.g. call-outs) but don’t overload the page

When an answer becomes a guide

Make the answer part of a longer guide when it:

  • depends on too many things, for example the age of your child and the type of job can’t be summed up
  • is not a popular search

Benefits and schemes

Overview

Give people what they want to know without going into detail, e.g. the rate and how long it’s paid for.

  • Don’t use one long paragraph.
  • Separate the main points.

Main sections

You’ll meet the user’s need by:

  • sticking to the title and need
  • resisting the temptation to provide information around the subject
  • using examples for complex calculations (use example markdown)
  • sticking to the common case – put unusual cases in ‘Further information’

Further information

This isn’t a dumping ground. Content still needs to be useful. If you can’t find a place for it, don’t use it.

The main information needed is:

  • effect on other benefits
  • appeals and edge cases
  • more information on how things like calculations, cases and benefits are worked out

Guides

Overview

‘Part 1’ of the guide should contain the most important information that the majority of users will want to read – you can have an ‘overview’ but you don’t have to.

Subsequent parts should have more specific information and content for specialist audiences.

Parts

You should break content into sections based on user needs as well as the natural structure of the content.

You don’t have to use parts. If you find that you only have 3 or 4 small parts in a guide, consider simply having a page without parts where users can scroll.

For consistency across the site, these part titles (and order) should be used: Eligibility; Apply for…; Appeal against.

Don’t force a linear reading pattern.

Avoid duplicating information but also don’t assume people have read all parts of the guide.

You can link between different parts of the guide using slugs.

Writing for the web

Anyone can put information online, but writing well for the web is very different. Look at popular information sites like the BBC, The Guardian, Oxfam or Lonely Planet. You’ll see their content is easy to read and understand.

They use:

  • short sentences
  • subheaded sections
  • simple vocabulary

This helps users to find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly.

User need

The 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 it’s 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 and I don’t need anything else.

A site only works if users can find what they need quickly, complete their task and leave without having to think about it too much.

What the user wants matters most

Users don’t 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

Where to publish

You have a website, so you publish everything there. Right?

Not necessarily.

Think about where your users go. Do they visit blogs, forums, partner sites or social media? Why not talk to them there too? If all you do is publish on your site, you’re always working to get users to visit it.

Know your audience

This is a traditional ‘rule’: you can’t write effectively unless you know who you’re writing for.

It’s true most of the time.

If you have a specific audience in mind, knowing how they behave can mean the difference between success and complete failure.

You definitely need to know the vocabulary of your users. That’s the one golden rule. If you don’t use the same terms and phrases as them, they may never find your content. You’ve failed.

But what if you don’t have a specific audience? What if your message could be for anyone? Isn’t that what the web is about?

Yes, it is. Whoever your main users are, you need to make your writing as easy to read as possible, so it’s accessible to all. After all, why settle for one audience, when you could speak to everyone?

Can you really write in a way that engages anyone and everyone? The good news is you can.

Don’t ‘push’ content at users, let them ‘pull’ it

Traditionally, sites have published lots of information without thinking about the users, ‘pushing’ content at them.

Content that works is information that users want and search for, ‘pulling’ it towards them.

How users read

Knowing how users read means you’ll write in a way they can understand easily and quickly.

By the time the average child is 9 years old, they can skip up to 30% of words on a page and still accurately predict the text. That’s not just reading online. If there’s enough context, the mind fills in the gaps. You don’t need to read every word to understand what is written.

Also, online, users don’t read in the traditional way. They don’t necessarily read top to bottom or even from word to word.

Front-loadings

Web-user eye-tracking studies show that people tend to ‘read’ a webpage in an ‘F’ shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.

So ‘front-load’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points. What this means is: put the most important information first.

For example, say ‘Canteen menu’, not ‘What’s on the menu at the canteen today?’

Make sure your bullet points are all in the same tense and verb form, with any common information in the lead-in.

Good example:

At the activity centre you can:

  • swim
  • play
  • run

Bad example:

At the activity centre:

  • you can swim
  • you can play
  • you can run

Common words

By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Even as adults, we find these words easier to recognise and understand.

When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words that follow it (words of 3, 4 or 5 letters). So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.

Look at this sentence: “The recently implemented categorical standardisation procedure on waste oil should not be applied before 1 January 2014.” It’s just an example, but you can imagine people missing that ‘not’. This is a big deal.

How about: “Do not use the new waste oil standards before 1 January 2014.”

Focus on the child’s common word set of up to 5,000 words. This makes it easier to read and understand information quickly.

Start writing

So now you’re ready to write.

Most users start on a search engine. There’s a good chance your audience won’t even find your page if you don’t use the vocabulary they use for their search in your page title, summary and first paragraph.

Titles

You don’t have a lot of space in a search engine to tell your user that the information they want is on your page, so make every word count. Keep all titles to 65 characters (including spaces).

Think about how the title will look in search on mygov.scot and on search engines. Make sure your titles are clear for the content format you are using.

Front-load keywords and use colons to break up long titles (it helps users to scan). ‘Planning appeal procedures: Technical review’ works better than ‘Technical review of planning appeal procedures’.

Explain any unusual terms and keep a friendly, informative tone. It’s not a magazine and we won’t be using slang, etc., but keep the language easy to understand.

Remember that puns or wordplay can make the content difficult to find.

Meta descriptions

Condense the main point of the page in 160 characters or less. Include the selected search keyword(s), plus any you haven’t included in the page title.

Remember that the meta description – along with the title – is often what users will see in search results. So let them see quickly whether this page will have the information that they want.

Summaries should end with a full stop.

Body copy

Keep your body copy as focused as possible. Include search keywords where possible – without shoehorning them in.

Remember, you’re likely to be battling outside factors for user attention, not least their mood and situation. They might be looking at a smartphone on a train, trying to complete their task online in the middle of a stressful family event, or dealing with any combination of multiple unknowns. If you want their attention, don’t waste their time.

Don’t publish everything you can online. Publish only what the user needs to know so they can complete their task. Nothing more.

Length of page

Jakob Nielsen ran a study that showed users only read 20 to 28% of text on a web page, so you may think: ‘The shorter the page, the better’.

This is generally true. Remember that the pressure on the brain to understand increases for every 100 words you put on a page. The quicker you can get to the point, the faster a user will consume the information, understand and either leave or engage.

But the main point is to write well.

Word counts don’t help if you write text full of caveats, jargon and things users don’t need to know (but you want to say). You can have a single paragraph on a page, but if it’s not written in a user-centred way then it’s too much.

7 golden rules for writing for the web

You should:

  1. make it brief and to the point
  2. break up text into subheaded sections
  3. use bullet lists
  4. ‘front-load’ subheadings, titles and bullet points with the most important information
  5. include links to external sites and relevant pages
  6. use words that are easy to understand
  7. use active, not passive, tense

After publication

Users expect information to be accurate and up to date. You can archive news stories, but you’ll need to change any other pages as the content changes or when user testing tells you there’s a better way of doing it.

If you don’t, users will lose trust in your content, and may not visit your pages again.

A to Z of common terms

A  
Access to Work Scheme This is an official title when you are referring directly to the actual programme, so is in upper case; if not, then use lower case.
accountancy service provider Use title case when referring to the business area covered by Money Laundering Regulations. Don’t use the acronym.
Accounts Office This is an official title.
Activation PIN Title case. ‘Activation PIN’ has been changed to ‘Activation Code’ on outgoing correspondence from the Government Gateway. Until all hard coded instances of Activation PIN have been removed from the Online Services pages, use: ‘Activation Code (also known as Activation PIN)’.
act, act of Parliament, act of the Scottish Parliament Lower case. Only capitalise when using the full title, e.g. Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997.
adviser Not advisor, but advisory is the correct adjective.
al-Qa’ida  
animal health Lower case.
antisocial No hyphen.
apprenticeship programme Lower case, but Modern Apprenticeship programme is an official name.
A-road  
armed forces Lower case
arm’s length body Apostrophe, no hyphen.
assembly ministers Not a title.
Attendance Allowance This is an official title.
B  
Bacs (Bankers Automated Clearing System) Acronym should come first as it’s more widely known than the full name. Please note that the acronym has changed to ‘Bacs’.
Behavioural Insights team Use capitals if it’s a specific named team. Always use lower case for ‘team’ and generic names like research team, youth offending team.
Bereavement Payment This is an official title.
Blind Person’s Allowance This is an official title.
board Always use lower case unless it’s part of a proper title, e.g. ‘The DFT’s management board’, ‘the Judicial Executive Board’.
Burns Night, Burns Supper These are proper names.
business continuity management Lower case.
business plan Not even in the title of the business plan (publication title).
business statement Lower case.
C  
cabinet, Scottish cabinet The cabinet is lower case, unless referring to a title, e.g. Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, but education secretary.
Cairngorms National Park This is an official name.
CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) More usually known by its acronym.
Capital Gains Tax This is an official title.
Care Inspectorate This is an official title.
ceilidh Lower case.
chairman Use lower case in text, but capitalise in titles, e.g. (name), Chairman, NMS.
CHAPS (Clearing House Automated Payment System) The acronym should come first as it’s more widely known than the full name.
chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) materials. Lower case but use caps for the acronym.
chief constable Lower case except where it’s a title with the holder’s name, like Chief Constable (name).
Child Benefit This is an official title.
Child Tax Credit Named benefit, but generic references to tax credits are lower case.
Childcare Allowance for Parents This is an official title.
Citizens Advice Bureau(x) No apostrophe. The bureaux are the actual offices that dispense advice.
Citizens Advice Scotland No apostrophe. This is the charity that oversees all Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Civil Contingencies Secretariat Upper case because it’s the name of an organisation.
civil service Lower case.
coalition Lower case in all instances, including ‘the coalition’.
CO2 Use capital letters and a regular 2.
coastguard Not a title.
code of practice Lower case.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Local government council for the Na h-Eileanan Siar council area; Scotland’s sole Gaelic-only named council (formerly the Western Isles Council).
commercial software Not ‘third party software’ or ‘3rd party software’.
community council Lower case.
Community Health Partnership (CHP); Community Health and Care Partnership (CHCP) Use capitals when referring to an official name, e.g. NHS Mid Highland
Community Health Index (CHI) Number
community planning lower case
community planning partnerships lower case
community resilience Lower case.
conduct of business rules Lower case.
confirmation Lower case.
Construction Industry Scheme Use upper case when referring to the actual Construction Industry Scheme, (‘CIS’, not ‘the CIS’).
Construction Industry Scheme Online/CIS Online This is an official title.
consultation responses Lower case.
continuous improvement Lower case.
co-operation Lower case.
Corporation Tax This is an official title.
Corporation Tax for Agents  
online service This is an official title.
Corporation Tax Online Use uppercase if referring to the actual service, not if you are describing using the service.
COSLA Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, more usually known by its acronym.
council Lower case except when used in an official title, e.g. Glasgow City Council.
Council Tax Upper case.
Court of Session This is a proper noun.
credit unions Lower case.
critical national infrastructure Lower case.
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) This is an official title.
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) This is an official title. Note: it is not preceded by the definite article.
Customs Duty This is an official title.
D  
defence Lower case even when referring to the defence team at the MOD.
defence team Lower case.
department Lower case except when in the title, e.g. the Department of Health.
devolved administrations Lower case.
Direct Debit This is an official title.
Direct Debit Instruction This is an official title.
director Lower case in text. capitalise in titles, e.g. (name), Director, NMS.
Disability Living Allowance (DLA) This is an official title.
dispensation Lower case.
Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) This is an official title.
Duty Deferment Electronic Statements (DDES) This is an official title.
E  
Early Years Framework This is an official title.
EC Sales List (ESL) The abbreviation is ‘ESL’, not ‘ECSL’.
electronic Binding Tariff Information (eBTI) This is an official title.
emergency plan Lower case.
enrol Lower case.
enrolling Lower case.
enrolment Lower case.
European Commission Leave unabbreviated to distinguish from the European Community. Write it out in full at first mention, then call it ‘the Commission’.
European Union vs European Community Use EU when you mean EU member states, e.g. EU countries, EU businesses, EU consumers, goods exported from the EU, EU VAT numbers, etc. EC should be used when it’s EC directives, EC Sales List, etc.
euros Lower case.
Excel spreadsheet Upper case because it’s a brand name.
executive director Lower case in text. capitalise in titles, e.g. (name), Executive Director, NMS.
F  
finance and procurement Lower case.
fire and rescue service Lower case for generic references to ‘the fire and rescue service’, but use capitals for ‘the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’.
First Minister Use capitals when referring to the holder’s name or as a title only, e.g. ‘First Minister (name)’ and ‘the First Minister’.
focuses, focused Single ‘s’ only.
foot and mouth disease Lower case.
free school meals Lower case.
Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) This is an official title.
fulfil Ends with a single ‘l’.
Full Payment Submission Upper case.
G  
Gaelic/Gàidhlig This is a proper noun.
general election Lower case.
GIRFEC Getting it right for every child; this approach is more usually known by its acronym.
government Lower case unless referring to a specific government, e.g. Scottish Government, UK Government.
government offices Lower case.
government procurement card Lower case.
Green Deal Upper case because it’s the name of a programme, but note that it’s Green Deal programme, Green Deal team, Green Deal assessment, etc.
Guardian’s Allowance Named benefit.
guidance Not a title, just a descriptor: don’t capitalise any named guidance e.g. national recovery guidance.
H  
harbour authority Lower case unless part of a proper noun, e.g. Wick Harbour Authority.
harbour master Not a title, therefore lower case.
Health Protection Scotland This is an official title.
High Court of Justiciary This is a proper noun.
Hogmanay This is a proper noun.
home page Lower case, two words.
human resources Lower case.
I  
Import Control System This is an official title.
Income Support Names of benefits take initial caps.
Income Tax All names of taxes take initial caps.
input tax Lower case.
instil Single ‘l’.
internet Lower case.
Intrastat Supplementary Declaration This is an official title.
J  
Jobseeker’s Allowance This is an official title.
L  
law Lower case even when it’s ‘the law’.
legal aid Lower case. Note: different rules apply in Scotland.
liaison officers Lower case.
licence Noun, e.g. ‘driving licence’
license Verb, e.g. ‘Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’
Local Authority Trading Standards Services Upper case as long as it’s a specific named organisation, not trading standards services in general.
local council Lower case.
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park This is an official name.
Lone Parents Childcare Grant This is an official title.
lottery Always use the National Lottery if that is what you mean.
M  
Machine Games Duty (MGD) This is an official title.
Machine Games Duty for Agents online service This is an official title.
mandatory committee Lower case for generic term, but capitalise when using the official title of such a committee, e.g. Public Petitions Committee.
member states of the EU The member states are descriptive; it’s not a title.
Member’s Bill This is an official title used by the Scottish Parliament.
memorandum of understanding Lower case.
Mileage Allowance Payments This is an official title.
minister – public health minister, environment and climate change minister, etc. Use upper case for the full title, e.g. Minister for Housing and Welfare, or when used with a name, as a title, such as Minister for Public Health (name). Note that when used without the name, shortened titles are lower case, as in ‘The public health minister welcomed the research team’.
MP, MSP, MSYP Don’t use Member of Parliament or Member of the Scottish Parliament, just MP or MSP. Do spell out Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYP) the first time it is used, however, as the term is not as well known.
money laundering Lower case when referring to the activity not the regulation.
N  
Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament constituency area.
Na h-Eileanan Siar The official name of the council area formerly known as the Western Isles.
National Insurance card  
National Insurance contributions(NICs)  
National Insurance number Not NINO.
National Museums Scotland (NMS) No ‘of’ in this official title.
National Outcomes This is an official title.
National Records of Scotland (NRS) This is an official title.
New Computerised Transit System (NCTS)  
New Export System (NES)  
NHS 24 Note the single space.
NHS local health board, NHS special health board Lower case. Note: there are no NHS trusts in Scotland.
non-executive director Lower case in text. Ue capitals for titles, e.g. (name), Non-executive Director, NMS.
Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Upper case because it’s the name of an organisation.
O  
occupational pension This term covers both company and public sector pension schemes. Only use this term if explaining tax rules that apply specifically to occupational pension schemes.
Office of the Advocate General for Scotland This is an official title.
Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Counsel This is an official title.
one-year-on report If used as an adjective, hyphenate and use ‘one’ rather than ‘1’.
online services Lower case unless part of a proper noun. HMRC Online Services should be in title case when referred to in full. Equally if you want to refer to a named service, it should be in title case, e.g. ‘Submit your company tax return using Corporation Tax Online.’
opposition Lower case even for ‘the opposition’. Also for opposition party leader (name).
order Only use capitals if referring to the full title, e.g. Standing Order 22.
Ordinary Statutory Paternity Pay This is an official title.
P  
Parliament, Scottish Parliament Upper case.
Parliamentary Upper case.
Parliamentary Bureau This is an official title.
Parliamentary committees, Scottish Parliament committees Parliamentary/Parliament takes an initial capital and committees is in lower case.
Patent Box When referring to the product/relief/regime, then say ‘the Patent Box’. Occasionally the definite article will be dropped. Examples of this are: in calculations - where we use ‘Patent Box deduction’ when using phrases such as ‘Answers to your Patent Box questions’, etc.
payroll Lower case.
PAYE/CIS for Agents online service This is an official title.
PAYE Coding Notice This is an official title.
PAYE Online for employers This can be abbreviated to ‘PAYE Online’ within the ‘PAYE Online for employers’ area of the website.
PAYE Settlement Agreements (PSAs) This is an official title.
pension provider Lower case. Not pension payer.
Pension Schemes for administrators Lower case on administrators.
Pension Schemes for practitioners Lower case on practitioners.
performance management Lower case.
Personal Independence Payment Named benefit.
police Lower case, even when referring to ‘the police’, but use capitals for ‘Police Scotland’.
police service Lower case. Note that ‘police force’ is usually avoided.
policy note Lower case.
policy statement Lower case.
PowerPoint presentation Upper case because it’s a brand name.
practice Noun e.g.GP practice
practice Verb e.g. practice medicine
Prime Minister Use ‘Prime Minister (name)’ and ‘the Prime Minister’.
Private Member’s Bill (pl. Private Members’ Bills) This is an official title used by the UK Parliament.
Private Bill, Public Bill, Hybrid Bill These are official titles used by the Scottish Parliament.
procurator fiscal (pl. procurators fiscal) Lower case unless used with the holder’s name.
programme Lower case, e.g. Sure Start Scotland programme. Use ‘program’ only if referring to computer software.
public health Not a title.
R  
Real Time Information and RTI This is an HMRC programme and should only appear either with initial capitals or as an acronym when referring to the programme itself. When describing customer processes, use common language phrases like ‘send your payroll information to HMRC’ or ‘operate your payroll in real time’, but don’t say ‘send your payroll under RTI’, or use the acronym like ‘in RTI’ or ‘under RTI’.
Rebated Oils Enquiry Service This is an official title.
recovery structures Lower case.
Reduced Earnings Allowance Named benefit.
regulations Use capitals when referring to ‘Regulations’ in a full title, e.g. Licensing of Animal Dealers (Young Cats and Young Dogs) (Scotland) Regulations 2009 or the Fruit Juices and Fruit Nectars (Scotland) Regulations 2013, but usually ‘the licensing of animal dealers regulations’. No comma before the date.
reform plan Lower case.
regional resilience partnership Lower case, but use capitals when referring to an official title, e.g. ‘North of Scotland Regional Resilience Partnership’.
research team When a group that has a very generic title (e.g. working group, research team) it should be lower case. Note that ‘team’ is lower case, e.g. youth offending team, Behavioural Insights team.
Registered Dealers in Controlled Oils (RDCO) This is an official title.
resilience Lower case.
resilience plans Lower case.
risk assessment Lower case.
risk management Lower case.
Royal Household in Scotland Upper case when referring to the departments that, collectively, support the British Royal Family.
S  
science and technical advice cell When a group that has a very generic title (e.g. X working group, Y research team) it should be lower case.
Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) Not ‘Environmental’.
Scotland Office This is an official title.
Scottish Resilience Division This is an official title.
Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) This is an official title
Secretary of State for XXX The Secretary of State for XXX is written in capitals regardless if it’s used with the holder’s name because there is only one. Use common sense to capitalise shortened versions of the UK government Secretary of State titles such as Health Secretary. The rule for ministers is different because there are more than one.
section 2 As in part of an act or a strategy.
sector resilience plans Lower case.
self-assessment This compound noun should be hyphenated, unless it’s an HMRC title.
Self Assessment for Agents online service This is an official title.
Self Assessment Online This is an official title.
Self Assessment Online for partnerships This is an official title.
Self Assessment Online for trusts This is an official title.
Self Assessment tax return Use ‘Self Assessment tax return’ the first time it’s mentioned on a page. After that use ‘tax return’.
self-directed support (SDS) Lower case when used as a generic term.
self-employment Hyphenate this noun.
services Lower case, even when referring to the armed forces services or the services.
settlor A settler of trusts.
Sewel Convention This is an official title.
Shadow (job title, e.g. Health Secretary) The Shadow Secretary of State for XXX is capped up whether or not it’s used with the holder’s name because there is only one. Use common sense to capitalise shortened versions of the Secretary of State titles, e.g. the Shadow Health Secretary.
Shadow Cabinet This is an official title when used in relation to the UK Parliament, which has only one Shadow Cabinet (comprised of opposition members). Each of the opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament forms a shadow cabinet; capitalise only if using the full title of any of these, e.g. the Labour Shadow Cabinet.
sheriff, sheriff court, sheriff principal (pl. sheriffs principal) Lower case, unless used as an official title, e.g. Dumfries Sheriff Court.
SMEs This acronym means small and medium enterprises. Use SME for the singular.
special waste Lower case. Note: this is Scotland’s term for what is known as hazardous waste elsewhere in the UK.
Spending Review When referring to the Spending Review, it is treated as an official title, but if discussing an action e.g. ‘we are conducting a spending review’ only lower case is used.
St Andrew’s Day This is a proper name.
Stamp Taxes for Agents online service This is an official title.
Stamp Taxes Online This is an official title.
standards of conduct Not a title.
standing order Only use capitals if referring to the full title, e.g. Standing Order 22.
State Pension Named benefit.
Statutory Adoption Pay Named benefit.
Statutory Maternity Pay Named benefit.
Statutory Sick Pay Named benefit.
strategic national framework on XXX Not a title.
strategic partners Not a title.
strategy Lower case. Don’t capitalise any named strategy, e.g. national health and welfare strategy.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) Use acronym for promotion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics activities.
subject committee Lower case for generic term, but capitalise when using the official title of such a committee, e.g. Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee.
summary of consultation responses All lower case.
Supreme Court This is a proper noun.
Sure Start Scotland programme Because it’s the name of a programme. Note that programme is lower case.
T  
tax credit Not a title, but Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credits are specific benefits, so use capitals.
tax returns Title case the first time they are mentioned, e.g. ‘Company Tax Return’, ‘Partnership Tax Return’, ‘Employer Annual Return’). After that refer to them in full, or if it’s clear what you’re referring to, simply as a ‘return’. General references to tax returns are always in lower case. When referring to the legal requirement we use ‘deliver’ or ‘file’ the return. Online, we say ‘submit’ the return. For Self Assessment (paper or online) use ‘send’ or ‘file’ the return. ‘Send’ is better.
team Lower case, e.g. youth offending team.
Throughcare and Aftercare (TCAC) Service This is an official title.
Tied Oils Enquiry Service This is an official title.
Trading Standards This is an official title.
Trust or Company Service Provider When used to refer to the business area covered by Money Laundering Regulations.
Twitter account Use upper case because Twitter is a trademarked name.
U  
Under-declared  
UK government Never HM government.
Universal Credit Named benefit.
User ID  
V  
VAT for Agents online service  
VAT EC Sales List (ECSL)  
VAT EU Refunds  
VAT EU Refunds for Agents online service  
VAT on e-Services  
VAT Online  
VAT online services Used when referring to all the online services for VAT.
VAT-registered Hyphenated when used as a compound adjective.
VAT registration number Lower case, except when it refers to a field within a form.
VAT Registration Online This is an official title.
VAT registration threshold Lower case.
VAT Return Always use ‘VAT Return’ unless it’s very clear from the context which ‘return’ you are referring to (e.g. ‘How to submit your return’ within a guide on ‘VAT Returns’).
VAT Reverse Charge Sales List (RCSL) This is an official title.
W  
Widowed Parent’s Allowance This is a named benefit.
Word document Word is capitalised because it’s a brand name.
Working Tax Credit Named benefit, but generic references to tax credits are lower case.
written ministerial statement, written statement Lower case.

Contains information from Government Digital Service licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.