Content should be easy to read so people can scan the page quickly and find the information they need.
How users read
Users typically read web pages fast, sometimes skipping content, as they generally want to complete a service as quickly as possible. Find out more about how users read on the web.
Writing for digital is different to writing for print. Content must be user-focused, scannable and accessible across all devices.
It's important to know your audience - understand what they are interested in and use the same terms and phrases they do when searching for information.
We use these words every day.
Writing in plain English means using simpler and more direct language and improves readability for all users.
How to write in plain English
Avoid jargon so the user can understand the content easily.
Use active voice - not passive.
Use the shorter, plain English word, term, sentence and paragraph over the longer.
Minimise punctuation. Use several short sentences instead of a long sentence broken up with punctuation.
Aim for a reading level of age 9.
Readability is about how easy it is for a user to understand text. Complex information on our website can confuse people and is a barrier to accessing our services.
Content with a good readability level helps users understand what they need to do. This includes users with lower comprehension skills.
Aim to make content as readable as possible. This makes it more accessible for everyone, not only users with lower literacy skills.
Aim for a reading level of age 9. This would be someone who is in Primary 5 or 6.
Even if you aren't able to achieve an age 9 reading level, the more readable you can make content, the better it is for everyone.
Learn more about readability on the Scottish Government website.
We should remember that people with some learning disabilities read letter by letter. They tend to spend longer reading and sounding words, unlike people who don't have a disability, who tend to bounce off words.
People with learning disabilities also may not fully understand a sentence if it's too long.
By using plain English, we can help our users understand sentences of around 20 to 25 words.
Our modern 'tone of voice' means we should be:
This means writing clearly and concisely, with a purpose and using positive language.
We should always be relevant, engaging and empathetic.
- Open and trustworthy.
Everything we write should be clear, factual and truthful.
Use the active voice (subject-verb-object) rather than passive. In an active sentence, the person doing the action comes first, followed by the action, then the object. This helps them understand the content quicker and easier, as it gets straight to the point.
Passive voice can send the reader backwards. It can make it difficult to know who did what.
Example of active voice:
- The committee (subject) campaigned (verb) to lower obesity (object).
- We (subject) accepted (verb) your application (object).
Example of passive voice:
- The lowering of obesity was campaigned for by the committee.
- Your application was accepted by the service.
You can use passive voice if you can't specify the 'do-er' of an action.
Example of passive voice:
- The full-time role was approved in June.
Address the user as 'you' where possible. Content on the site often makes a direct appeal to residents and businesses to get involved or take action, for example:
'You can report a problem with a footpath online', or 'Pay your car parking fine'.
- 'you' and 'your' in the answer (the site is talking to the site visitor)
- 'we' whenever possible to keep the tone conversational. Avoid referring to services or teams unless it is vital to the customer for the information they're reading or for them to access the service.
- 'we' and 'our' for the organisation that is answering the question.
Don't use 'I' or 'my'.
Avoid third person nouns (North Lanarkshire Council's Money Advice Team) and pronouns (he, she, it and they).
- Tell us if you have trouble paying your rent.
- If the tenant is having difficulty paying their rent, the customer services hub can provide further guidance.
When you describe a third party that carries out work on behalf of North Lanarkshire Council, you should either reference them directly or use 'we'. Don't use 'North Lanarkshire Council'. For example, you should write 'We clean your streets regularly' or '(supplier) clean your streets regularly on our behalf', but you shouldn't write 'North Lanarkshire Council cleans your streets regularly'.
We explain all unusual terms on northlanarkshire.gov.uk. This is because you can understand six-letter words as easily as two-letter words - if they're in context.
Sometimes, you can read a short word faster than a single letter - if the context is correct.
Not only are we giving full information, we're speeding up their reading time. We're allowing them to understand in the fastest possible way. This is great for users who are impatient to complete a service in a hurry.
In transactions you need to give people context and the information they are expecting. This helps them get through it faster.