I have been fighting the Battle of Excessive Capitalisation. This battle is but one in a war against legalese, verbosity and poor grammar which is fought daily in trying to set and maintain clear communication online (and probably in offline comms too, although that’s not my area).

So, where is it written that we capitalise this but not that (apart from Strunk and White or in grammar 101)? Well, you’ve got a style guide right? Right? No? Oh…*shuffles uncomfortably*

I did a little research into style guides this summer as I was updating our in-house digital style and standards guide ahead of a website refresh. I asked on Twitter as to whether any other local gov folk already had adopted style guides and the response was pretty low.

Someone used a cut back version of the Yahoo! style guide;  someone else offered up their writing for the web guidance. There were quite a few vague assertations about thinking, possibly, they used the Guardian Style Guide as a basis.

This all suggests that even where a council has got a style guide it hasn’t been widely adopted, accepted and possibly isn’t enforced before publication, which sort of negates the point of choosing or creating one in the first place.

I think they are an essential tool in the digital comms toolkit and that any web team should have one (BS 8878:2010 has more info on what documentation should be in place for running an accessible website).

So, if you’re just starting to think of setting or refreshing the guidelines for your website here’s my top five steps to online style:

  1. See if there are any existing style guides out there which pretty much set out the tone and decisions on phrases that you’re looking for. There’s no point re-inventing the wheel and while it’s unlikely to set out every single thing you’re looking for, or may not be in tune with you on some decisions, it’s a good starting point.
    I like the Guardian style guide – their online version is really handy and they will adjudicate or clarify through their guardianstyle twitter account too. Plenty of well known newspapers have online style guides although some may now be behind a paywall.
    Not happy to use an existing guide from a media organisation as your basis? Well, take a look at what’s around anyway and then get writing – there’s a lot to be listed in your box fresh guide!
  2. Where you are using an exisitng guide as your main reference the next step is to set out any differences your organisation wants to recognise. Things in this section may be the way you write the date, the way you write out numbers, how you use symbols such as % and how you refer to your own organisation on your website. As an extension of this I’d suggest creating a quick reference guide of common mistakes – perhaps Excessive Use of Capitals is one you could address.
  3. Set your tone and make it clear in the guide. This is something that lots of people will struggle with as most often you want an informal but knowledgeable tone, often in the first person, always in plain English. This can be like writing in a foreign language for someone who’s main experience is cabinet reports.
  4. Set up a workflow. Ok so this isn’t directly part of the style guide you’re creating however it’s a key part to whether it’s a success or merely a busy exercise in creating a document to collect digital dust on the shared drive.
    Using a workflow approval process (your content management system should support this) – the digital communication equivilent of a sub-editor if you like –  means that you can gently correct mistakes made by your content authors and, most importantly, enforce the style you’ve set before publication.
    There is a resource implication here – someone has to be able to approve content without causing a bottleneck. Not only that but by putting approval in place (and by definition this means sometimes rejecting content which needs improving) your organisation is showing the importance they place on their digital offering.  Many organisation’s still have a ‘it’s only the internet, just get anything up there, any old how – no-one’s reading it anyway haha!’ attitude this is generally changing. The same organisation is unlikely to let anyone at any level publish what they like, unseen by a comms professional, in the council newspaper.
  5. Raise awareness within your organisation. In the past we’ve delivered half day ‘writing for the web’ workshops (devised in-house) open to all but strongly recommended to those responsible for online content.
    There is sometimes resistance to this type of workshop but generally we’ve found they’re an excellent way to share good and bad examples of web content, explain the key points of our style guide and empower authors and content owners.

I could probably expand this list further but it’s enough to get started with a style guide. If you’re serious about the quality of the information you put out online and recognising your digital offering as equal to your offline publications (or possibly increasingly more important than traditional channels) then adapting common communication practice is an obvious starting point.

You can’t expect everyone in the organisation to read it, memorise it and stick to it unquestioningly and faultlessly but it’s an essential tool in the digital communication toolbox – use it for getting consistency in approving content before publishing and for referencing authors or content owners to when they disagree with your decision.

Oh, and don’t forget – you’ll need to review your decisions at some point to. The internet is evolving, language is evolving, your organisation’s attitude to online is probably evolving and your style guide should recognise that and evolve over time too.

Finally, I must thank Robin Morley for flagging up this course on capitals resource from the BBC – it’s a useful refresher for those of us doing the approval and a handy link to send people who insist that council is always Council.