Online communications: Writing and editing content

This page is one in a set of three guides written for colleagues, but shared here in case it is useful to others.

Please bear in mind it was written for a specific internal audience. It is licenced under Creative Commons BY-SA.

General

Writing content

Be active and engaging

Ask yourself if you would find your content interesting if someone else had produced it. Refer to what we do rather than what the [name or organisation] does (eg ‘we talk to people’ rather than ‘the communications team talks to people’).

Try to present your message as about what we are doing rather than what we have done.

Use active sentences rather than passive ones (eg ‘We wrote these documents’ rather than ‘These documents were written by the communications team’).

Message

Be very clear in your own head about the one main thing that you want to communicate. For example, do you want people to know you had a training day yesterday, or that something specific came out of it, or that you’re currently running a training programme.

Then make sure you start with the most important information and end with the least important information (an approach known as the Inverted Pyramid):

However, at the same time remember that your writing needs to engage your readers. Headlines should convey the context of the key message and opening paragraphs should give an overview of the content (introducing the subject matter and the direction you’re heading in):

Keep it in context

Remember that your content may not always appear to readers in the way that you expect. Elements of your online posts may be presented to people out of context. In particular, a headline or a first paragraph might appear independently, for example in a list on another web page or in an RSS feed. Therefore it’s important to ensure that both of these convey the context of the article they’re related to.

Don’t be sloppy

There is never an excuse for bad writing, no matter how little space you have (for example, poor grammar and shortcuts should be avoided on Twitter as much as anywhere else; edit carefully, use brevity and include links to further content if necessary).

See our House Style for guidance on writing for the web. [I can't link to it because it is not currently available online.]

Using other people’s material

Never use anything you don’t have the right to. Always check licences, copyright and terms of use for anything you re-use (text and images, for example) regardless of where you find them.

See Online Communications: law.

Links

Include links to supporting information where possible, as this adds credibility both to you and to our organisation. It is also good for encouraging serendipity across the Web.

Make sure the text of a link would make sense on its own. For example ‘More’ is meaningless, whereas ‘More about the Bar Mock Trial Competition’ is informative; likewise ‘from our website’ is meaningless whereas ‘download from our website’ is more useful.

If the text of a link doesn’t describe it adequately, make sure the ‘title’ field is completed. This must be a brief explanation of the link (eg ‘Giving Nation home page’). One use of the ‘title’ field by browsers is to show you a description of a link as you hover your mouse over it. If you’re not sure if you need to complete the title field, do.

Links to downloadable documents

Where at all possible avoid linking directly to a downloadable file (eg Word, PDF) and instead link to the page on the internet that houses it. As well as saving our visitors confusion, this will help with the accuracy of our analysis of user statistics.

I you do need to link directly, make sure you include an indication (eg ‘(PDF)’ or ‘(MS Word)’) in both the text and the title field.

Pasting from Word

If you’re pasting text from Microsoft Word it often needs to be converted to plain text first. There is usually a button[1] in the text editor which you can click before pasting and it will do the converting for you.

This is a common issue, not a quirk of our website. The reason is that Word (and some other programs) adds a load of its own code to the html, which overrides a website’s stylesheets and makes it impossible to control the design centrally. It can also make it very confusing and frustrating for you when you try to edit your posts, as the hidden styles interfere with those that you’re trying to edit (so, for example, you might find you’re unable to get rid of bold text, or paragraphs don’t behave as they should).

As you are therefore pasting plain text into the editor, the formatting (eg bold, italics, hyperlinks) should be done after pasting[2] rather than beforehand in Word, in order to avoid formatting it twice.

Formatting

By ‘formatting’ I mean the use of bold, underline, italics, full capitals, etc.

Do use it to clarify meaning, do not use it for visual effect.

When to use formatting

[This may will be different for your own organisation.]

Bold To give something extra importance.
Underline Never (at least not on our site, as we only use it for links).
Italics Sparingly, as they can be hard to read on screen.When referring to titles of publications (but not organisations).
Full capitals Never.

For a fuller explanation see our House Style.

Blogging

To contribute to one of our own blogs you will need your own login (speak to your line manager if you don’t have one). As well as giving an identity to your blog posts, it makes it possible for the system to identify you (for example, you don’t need to sign your posts as your name will appear automatically on the published page).

You are also much more likely to be trusted and engaged with if your contributions are not anonymous.

If posting to Twitter from a group account (such as our main one) it’s a good idea to add at least your initials to the end of your messages so that readers can tell they’re coming from an individual.

Adding content

When writing a post on any of our own blogs you can save it as you go (it’s online so once saved it will still be there even if your computer blows up) and preview it before finally publishing it.

The main things you need to include are:

  • Title
  • Content of your post
  • Category

Some things will appear automatically. Therefore you don’t need to include:

  • Your name
  • The date

You can also include tags (these are keywords that describe your post, and are useful for adding context to the broader collection of posts) and trackbacks (which attempt to notify someone else on the internet that you’ve referenced them in your post).

The folk at WordPress provide a very good introduction to blogging.

Tone

Generally our tone in blog posts should be informal spoken English. If our tone is engaging, other people will engage with us. As long as they are appropriate, messages need not always be related directly to our work.

Try to appreciate how your audience might be consuming your content; for example, you don’t want to scare them off by bombarding them with Twitter status updates.

Also see Online Communications: Blogging.

Representation

Remember, whatever you write you are doing so as a representative of our organisation, just as you would be if you were standing in front of a roomful of people at a conference. Your writing, and any content you post (including anything you share, such as via a re-tweet on Twitter) should reflect that.

Also see Online Communications: law.

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