The University’s new content style guide is a large resource, and it’s a living document, so it’s only going to get larger. Within it are rules and guidelines covering everything from tone of voice to correct apostrophe use, from word choice to date format. If you find a formatting, style, punctuation or spelling situation not covered by the guide, it’s probably only because we haven’t thought of it yet. It’s really, really big.
That means it would be very hard for anyone to follow every rule in the style guide all of the time, particularly when there are lots of rules that folk won’t even know they’re breaking. Over time we’ll get better and better at this, of course, but in the meantime it’s worth asking the question: what are the style guide’s main aims? What’s most important?
To try to gain some clarity on this, we in the web content team performed a little exercise, inspired by gov.uk, where we listed some of the most common errors made during content writing and ranked them as either major or minor. We’ve categorised the errors in a similar way to the style guide itself, picking out likely key mistakes. This list is representative rather than exhaustive and was originally just for our own reference, but we found it very useful in helping us to think about what we’re trying to achieve when we write or edit content. Obviously our remit is web, not all University copy, but we think these principles apply more widely too, so we thought we’d share it!
|Writing: accuracy||Incorrect or misleading information||MAJOR|
|Writing: contact details||Out of date contact details||MAJOR|
|Writing: active voice||Excessive use of the passive voice||MAJOR|
|Writing: walls of text||Long paragraphs of text||MAJOR|
|Writing: word economy||Using waffle or not being concise||MAJOR|
|Straightforward language||Not using clear, straightforward language||MAJOR|
|UoD terms: Schools and Centres||Incorrect title of unit||MAJOR|
|UoD terms: the University||Use of ‘Dundee University’||MAJOR|
|UoD terms: places||Incorrect use of building names||MAJOR|
|Degrees: courses, programme, modules||Terms used incorrectly||MINOR|
|Degrees: &/and||Incorrect use of ampersands in degree names||MAJOR|
|Formatting: abbreviations and acronyms||Not using full title in first reference followed by initials in brackets||MAJOR|
|Formatting: capital letters||Using capital letters to add emphasis or imply importance||MINOR|
|Formatting: contact details||Web and phone not prefixed by appropriate symbols||MINOR|
|Formatting: dates||Incorrect date format||MINOR|
|Formatting: headings and subheadings||Not using sentence case||MINOR|
|Formatting: lists||Short phrase or single word lists not using lower case; sentences using lower case||MINOR|
|Formatting: lists||Punctuation used in short phrase or single word lists||MINOR|
|Formatting: numbers||Not written in full up to and including ten||MINOR|
|Formatting: quotations||No quote marks around quotes||MAJOR|
|Formatting: quotations||Long quotes not separated, or preceded by colon||MINOR|
|Formatting: times of day||Time not expressed in 24 hour clock||MINOR|
|Spelling: American and British spelling||British spelling not used in unique copy||MINOR|
|Spelling: contractions||Incorrect use of contractions||MINOR|
|Punctuation: apostrophes||Incorrect use of apostrophes||MINOR|
|Punctuation: brackets and parentheses||Incorrect use of parentheses or brackets||MINOR|
|Punctuation: colons||Incorrect use of colons||MINOR|
|Punctuation: hyphens and long dashes||Incorrect use of hyphens and long dashes||MINOR|
|Punctuation: semi-colons||Incorrect use of semi-colons||MINOR|
Our major errors can probably be split into a few different types.
- Errors that make our content harder to read, such as:
- walls of text
- excessive use of the passive voice
- using complicated language or terminology where it isn’t necessary
- Errors that seriously erode our identity as an institution, for example:
- referring to us as ‘Dundee University’
- misnaming one of our Schools
- Errors that could actually get us in legal trouble, such as:
- not putting quote marks around quotes
- incorrect use of ampersands in degree names (they’re not just a stylistic choice!)
- Straight-up incorrect information, for example:
- misnamed buildings
- out-of-date contact information
We’ve marked as minor those mistakes that don’t significantly affect readability, don’t result in the wrong information being imparted, and don’t seriously erode the brand. Examples include:
- spelling or punctuation errors
- formatting lists incorrectly
- using the 12-hour clock in times
Wat about spelling tho?
So does this mean we don’t care about spelling or punctuation any more? Not remotely! Everything we put on the web, just like print, should be proofed and word perfect, with not a single misspelling or misplaced apostrophe. That spelling and punctuation errors are mostly marked ‘minor’ does not mean that we’re going to start ignoring them!
But what’s actually important? That every inline list has a serial (‘Oxford’) comma, or that our message is clearly worded and the information we provide is correct? Which of those could make a material difference to our reputation or conversation rates? Which issue is more likely to cause our users to lose patience or trust with our web content?
Obviously myriad cumulative errors in punctuation or spelling will pile on and become major due to the reputational risk of messy, unprofessional copy. And I mean, I think I speak for most of the web content team when I confess that it actively pains me to admit that issues like missing apostrophes and rogue semi-colons are not the literal end of the world! As far as I’m concerned they are The Worst and we will not stop fixing those things.
But the simple truth is that a single misspelled word will do far less damage to our message than a ‘wall of text’ that’s difficult or frustrating to read, or a passage that comes across as remote and unfriendly, at odds with our identity as a warm, welcoming place to study and work. This should be reflected in our priorities when we approach copy editing or proofing work.
So where do we go from here?
We’ve been guilty in the past of copy-editing without question for punctuation and spelling, but too often allowing content to pass through our hands that we know could be more concise, could use more straightforward language, could be broken up or organised better on the page. As we move forward in our ambition to make Dundee’s web presence the best it can be, we are committed to improving our web content across the board. This means working more closely with our content experts, and with one another, to produce content that is consistently meeting our standards for readability, length and clarity – not merely correctly spelled and punctuated.
If you have any questions about our style guide, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to argue about the correct use of the semi-colon you can email me personally, but you’re taking your life into your own hands.