Writing style guide
If you have a query not covered in this guide, please ask The Editors.
- Writing for the web is different
- House style
- Common terms in use by NERC
- Spelling quick reference
The web is a very different medium from print. Website users don't behave like readers of a book or leaflet. They scan the screen and move on in a fraction of the time they would spend on printed material. So web pages must:
- load quickly
- be obvious
- get to the point
Much is down to how a page is put together - see the separate note on page structure. The rest is achieved by having well-written, clear and concise text. The experts say "remove half the words, then remove half of what's left". That may be hard to do, but you can cut the number of words without cutting meaning:
- avoid happy talk like "welcome to our page" - would you be unwelcome?
- avoid obvious instructions such as "click here" (see advice on links)
- use short words instead of excessively elongated phraseology (see common terms)
Whilst how we might write and structure a web page will be different from in print, we still need to achieve high quality, plain language content. A common "house style" helps achieve consistency. We use The Economist Style Guide unless the notes below say otherwise.
Dates should be given as day (as a number), then month (avoid abbreviating if possible), then the year (in full) - never adding "st", "nd" or "th" after the day.
1 January 2007 - not Jan 1st '07
State deadlines clearly: a day of the week is optional, but may help readers. Do not say "this week" or "today" - state dates precisely.
Times should be given using the 24 hour clock, 00:00 - 23:59 (don't say "hours"). An international context may require a time zone too, such as GMT.
Periods of time should be shown hyphenated (not slash):
2002-03 or 2002 - 2003, but not 2002/03.
We use "email" or "Email", rather than stick to The Economist's style guide's hyphenated form "e-mail". However other internet-related terms do take a hyphen:
- Joint e-Submission
- e-science or e-Science
Hyphens are also used where the pronunciation will be clearer:
But hyphens are not needed for words including:
Please supply full addresses including email, and phone numbers with area codes for all contacts mentioned. Only use international codes if you expect, or already get, predominantly international interest. The website makes it clear that NERC is a UK-based organisation, so international visitors will be aware how to dial from overseas.
This should always be used for formal titles of people or organisations, such as "Centre for Ecology & Hydrology" or "Director, Science & Innovation", for clarity especially in lists. Otherwise it should not be used instead of spelling out the word and.
Avoid using titles (Mr, Mrs) where possible - and use academic titles (Dr, Prof) sparingly.
Usually lower case, for example director of finance, director of Swindon Office. Upper case if the person's name is given with the title, for example Chief Executive Duncan Wingham.
Values one to ten are spelled out unless followed by a unit of measure. Otherwise use numbers and units rather than spelling out amounts. It's shorter and easier to read:
"We found four different species in 1m2."
Always use metric (SI) units, not imperial, and for currency quote in pound-sterling, not US dollars. Use decimals rather than fractions to avoid ambiguity, and use a decimal point (not a period). These can be set in MS Word by typing "ALT" + "0183". For scientific units use "k" and "M" to modify the unit. For amounts of money, abbreviate million and billion:
£435·4m, $1·2bn and €23·3m
Unless detail is essential, round up to one decimal place. The definition of "billion" is taken as a thousand million. Unless it affects clarity express numbers using million instead - ie £1200m. See the The Economist Style Guide.
- The HTML code for decimal points, currency and other units will be set by the Web Team during page production - but using the above will speed up the work.
- Temperatures are expressed in °Celsius (MS Word, type "ALT" + "0186" for the degree symbol). Please note though that 20°C is not twice as hot as 10°C, nor can anything be twice as cold as anything else! Temperature as a physical property relates to absolute zero, 0 K (Kelvin) or -273°Celsius.
- If using an unusual symbol, please state what the symbol means. The Web Team can then set up an abbreviation tag ( <abbr> ) to provide users with a "tooltip" explanation.
Ensure any abbreviation is spelled out in full the first time it appears on a page, with the abbreviated form given in brackets.
NERC Executive Board (NEB)
If essential a page title may use an abbreviation as long as the full name is given in the first sentence.
The government is (not are)
NERC is (not 'the NERC is...' nor 'NERC are...')
(A possible exception would be 'the police are', but 'Thames Valley Police is to ...')
No headings or body text should ever be all capitalised unless it is an abbreviation. Upper case text is hard to read in large quantities.
Proper names or titles have the first letters as capitals:
Geological era, Jurassic, Early Permian, Pliocene, have caps.
But general terms do not:
general circulation models - usually lower case
ice age - usually lower case -since the end of the last ice age, or during the transition from ice age to non-ice age.
research councils - lower case when collective, unless it is Research Councils UK.
Compass directions are not capitalised, and when there is more than one they are joined by a hyphen, north-east (ern).
Roman text is easier to read on screen than italicised text, so is only used for names of species (Salmo salar) and names of publications (Planet Earth).
Don't use non-English words, names or phrases, including Latin, unless it is absolutely unavoidable, such as in a quotation.
Avoid eg, ad hoc, et al, etcetera. Use for example, for a specific purpose, and others, and the rest - and if the phrase seems awkward, think how it could be reworded.
Use bold text sparingly, otherwise it makes the really important information harder to see. A better approach would be to edit out less-important text so that what is left is the essential message. The Web Team can apply bold styles at production, but will remove excessive bold text.
Use double quotes (") for all quoted speech, and to denote a term or expression that would seem unusual to the reader in the context. (Be careful with the latter, though; this often gives the impression that the writer lacks confidence in what he or she is saying, or is trying to evade responsibility for it.) Use single quotes (') only to distinguish a quote within a quote.
Commas and periods come before the closing quotation mark when the quotation works as a sentence in its own right, but afterwards if the quotation is only a sentence fragment. Colons and semicolons appear outside the closing quotation mark. Question or exclamation marks should be before the quotation if they form part of the quotation, otherwise they should be outside.
The smart quotes (resembling numbers 6 or 9) used by MS Word should be replaced during production by ' and ".
A phrase introducing a quote should be followed by a comma:
The scientist said, "This is world-class research."
Only when the introductory text is a stand-alone phrase (that could be concluded with a period) should a colon be used:
The scientist emphasised the importance of the breakthrough: "This is world-class research."
As shorter sentences are easier to read online, it's usually best to use the simpler first structure.
Take care to avoid adding 's to create a plural (unless it is to an abbreviation, number, symbol or sign in lower case).
Also beware that it's means "it is", whereas its is the possessive of it. It's hot, but its surface is cool. Take care also between you're (meaning you are) and your (belonging to you).
- The planet is the Earth (capitalised), but what we plant crops in is earth (meaning soil).
- Lava is molten rock, whereas a larva is an immature form of an animal.
- For abbreviations, NERC staff should refer to the acronym list on the NERC Intranet (under 'Systems/Services').
Use the simple alternative
- time, not temporal
- space, not spatial
- people, not humans.
- about, not approximately
- make, not manufacture
- try, not endeavour
- show, not demonstrate
Try to avoid "man-made", though it is better than "human-made" which sounds too awkward, and "anthropogenic", which is jargon and hence not suitable for communicating with a general audience.
Try to ensure you use the "British English" form of terms.
- modelling/-ed (double 'l' - not modeling/-ed)
- focusing/-ed (single 's' - not focussing/-ed)
- occurring/-ed (double 'r' - not occuring/-ed)
- organise, organisation (most UK government uses the -ise ending, although -ize is also correct)
- liaise (two 'i's - not liase)
- volcanoes (with an 'e' - not volcanos)
- aluminium (with two 'i's - not aluminum)
- centre (though 'center' in HTML code)
- colour (though 'color' in HTML code)
- identify (beware of 'indentify' instead)
See also The Economist Style Guide - Spellings.