Style isn’t everything but it’s nice to have, especially if you want to impress or even just leave a good impression. So if questions about your organisation’s writing style usually elicit a shrug, it could be because you don’t have a style guide. Time to look up the online Australian Government Style Manual.
The Style Manual is meant for people who write, edit or approve copy for Australian Government departments. If you provide services to the government, you’ll find it particularly useful to give you an edge by writing in the accepted style.
Even if your organisation doesn’t have links to government, you can cherrypick the bits that suit, saving you the effort – and expense – of creating your own style guide.
This is the first digital edition of the Style Manual and it focuses on online content while still covering the rules of good writing, for everything from short emails to long reports. It has a comprehensive section on accessibility, and sprinkles instructions and examples throughout. Using inclusive and respectful language, creating findable content and what to avoid when structuring copy for a mobile device are among the many subjects covered.
Guidance for three tricky areas
We’ve summarised three areas of the Style Manual we think are especially helpful.
1. Respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
The Style Manual has clear guidance and explanations for referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in writing. Here are a few tips to keep top of mind:
- Consultation – get advice from traditional owners, local elders or content experts about preferences and protocols around language use, which can vary according to who is involved.
- Collective references – use plural form when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, nations, cultures, histories or languages to reflect diversity throughout Australia.
- Discriminatory language – avoid using terms that could cause offence. In addition to obvious words like ‘Aborigine’, ‘myth’ and ‘legend’, this includes acronyms such as ‘ATSI’ (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) and phrases like ‘our Aboriginal Australians’, which implies ownership.
- Strengths-based language – use language that emphasises strengths rather than problems. Focusing on problems continues the ‘deficit discourse’ and doesn’t acknowledge thriving First Australians’ cultures.
2. Writing findable content
If you would like to improve your hit rate online, check out the tips on writing and designing content. In addition to outlining the search strategies people use, the guide tells you how search engines work and how to optimise content.
In addition to offering specific advice on writing for people searching for information about government services, the guide also has many good universal tips:
- Plain language – use simple, everyday words. Avoid jargon that’s hard to understand for readers unfamiliar with the topic.
- Headings – write clear, short headings that describe the topic covered. Headings act as guides for readers and search engines. The latter use them to analyse and rank content.
- Keywords – match them to the search terms people use. Use them in the headings, body text and links. If you’re writing the metadata too, embed your keywords in that.
3. Understanding structure
The Style Manual provides guidance on structures for factual content (as opposed to creative content). These include the inverted pyramid, one of the best known, which is used by journalists every day.
The structure you choose will partly depend on whether you’re working on a long report, a short blog post or an infographic. No matter which structure you settle on, you can always tinker to customise it for your purposes. Here’s the gist:
- Inverted pyramid (works for most content) – start with the most important information or idea at the top, then present the rest in order of significance.
- Hierarchical (best for organisational charts and other visual material) – sort your content into categories and levels, and show how they relate to each other, using headings and subheadings.
- Narrative (best for long-form content) – start with general statements, and write with a beginning, middle and end.
- Sequential (best for instructions and describing events) – write the sequence, process or steps.
Keeping up with the times
Whether it’s to supplement or replace using the print edition, switching to the online edition of the Style Manual will help ensure your knowledge is current.
As you adapt to navigating its format, you’ll find it consolidates information in one place and is easy to search. Anyone with a print edition will admit to having a forest of sticky notes signposting the important stuff that’s always hard to find in a hurry.
Keen to keep up with the times, the government’s style changes including the following:
In body copy, use numerals except for zero and one. This is a big one that may take a while to catch on. It makes content more accessible and reflects modern usage.
Instead of using unspaced em dashes—like this—for amplifying additional or parenthetical information, use spaced en dashes – like this – because screen readers can mistake the unspaced dash for a hyphen. It’s also more modern.
However, when it comes to spans of numbers the government would prefer that you use words rather than en dashes. This change is also about accessibility.
Use ‘Cth’ rather than ‘Cwlth’ when indicating the jurisdiction in legislation.
You no longer need to use full stops with abbreviations, which is consistent with the wider move towards minimal punctuation.
By Kim Irving