Content Guidelines

Plain Language

Plain language is a style of writing designed to make text easy to read and understand.

Plain language is achieved through several techniques:

  • Write in short sentences. Sentences should incorporate only one main idea or point in order to be as clear as possible. Aim for no more than 20 words per sentence unless necessary.

  • Prefer the active voice. Active voice means that the subject does the action, rather than the subject being acted upon. The active voice is closer to the way we talk, and is more dynamic and easy to read. Active voice typically follows the structure of - the subject (noun) action (verb) what/where (object). Example: The dog (subject/noun) fetched (action/verb) the ball (object). One good rule is to remember that things don't happen to people, people DO things.

  • Use words appropriate for the situation and user. Write clearly using the simplest words which say what you mean. Only use jargon if you know that your reader will understand. Avoid buzzwords or words that only make sense to a very specific audience.

  • Avoid nominalizations. Nominalizations are abstract nouns formed from verbs. For example "discuss" (verb) vs. "discussion" (nominalization). Nominalizations make sentences passive, vague and harder to read.

  • Give short but clear directions. Directions should be in the active voice, and as clear and direct as possible. Do not be overly polite. Users need to know what to do without ambiguity. Directions such as "Download the album", or "Read the job poster," are far easier to understand than "You can download the album," or, "users are advised to read the job poster".

  • Use headings and lists. Headings and lists make the content easy to scan, and provide users clues as to where to find the information they are looking for. Typically users don't visit a page to read everything; they are looking for one specific piece of information. Make it easy for them to find the information they are looking for. Headings and lists are also great to break down different ideas in a blog or article.

  • Write informative hyperlinks. Tell users where they are going to land when they click the link. Avoid using hyperlinks with text such as "Click here" or, "on this page". Be clear in what content the reader will see when they click a link. Good link examples include "my new blog about leadership", or "the ATIP policy document".

Spelling

All language and content in the system uses Canadian spelling. The Canadian Press Stylebook or Canadian Press Caps and Spelling is a good resource for spelling, grammar and writing style in the Canadian context.

Addressing Users

Speak to users as if they are the main reader. Use pronouns such as "you" and yours, and use verbs that give direction, such as "download", "submit" or "save". Never refer to users in the third person. All system messaging should focus on the user.

Referring to Product Owners and the Government of Canada

Generally you should refer to your department or business as "us" or "we" unless it is unclear who the subject is from context, or if the documentation is official or for legal purposes. Using first person pronouns makes your product seem more personable.

When referring to the Government of Canada and all departments within it, you typically should use the entire name of the department, not the department's acronym. Only use the acronym if the name appears previously in a single text and you have defined the acronym.

Useful Tools

Here are some free tools and references that you can use to improve your writing: