Content style guide
The digital.gov.bc.ca content style guide is based on the gov.bc.ca Web Style Guide. If you have a formatting, editing or writing question that we don’t specifically mention, defer to their guide.
This guide can also be used by teams creating content for products, like an app or a form. Our goal is to create consistent content across all B.C. government platforms. “People often think of government as a single entity, so when our websites and services are inconsistent or function in unexpected ways, people lose trust in our services,” – Digital Plan, Mission 2: Digital Trust.
How we write
Think about the end product you’re creating content for. Chances are it’s not a word document or PDF. Many of us learned to write in school, with formatting and sentence structures based on an essay or report.
Content for a web page, mobile app or digital form needs to be different.
The best digital content is invisible. It just makes sense and it gives you the information, context or instructions you require.
Tone and voice
We take an authoritative and straight-forward tone. A friendly, yet firm voice. digital.gov.bc.ca is a website all about standards and guidance, we want our readers to feel confident and follow our lead.
We address the reader as “you.”
The use of plain language
You may have heard the term plain language before. The Digital Plan includes it as a specific call to action. But what does it actually mean?
- The use of simple words
- Short sentences with straightforward formatting
- Transparent, accurate and unbiased information
- Action-oriented, empowers the reader to take action and make informed choices
Plain language training is available for B.C. government employees.
Plain language helps you achieve an accessible reading level. We aim to keep our reading level at a grade 8 level. This is not always possible when writing about complex development or digital modernization terminology.
Words and phrases to avoid
- Public servant
- British Columbians, citizens
A better alternative
- Public service employee
- Reader, person
- People who live in B.C.
The use of bulleted lists and white space
You may have noticed our website favours bulleted lists and ample white space. This is deliberate.
When a block of text is broken up, it’s easier to scan and therefore easier to read. Bullets make this possible because they:
- Break up text in digestible chunks
- Make the overall content less dense
- Highlight the most important parts of your content without the need for other design elements
Using bullets in your content is also a writing hack. When deciding how you want to structure information it’s always good to ask, “Could this be a bulleted list?”
Headings and structuring your information
Headings tell a story. A reader should be able to summarize your content’s focus solely based on the headings and sub-headings.
How to write strong headings
There are multiple things to consider when writing a heading.
1. Front-load headings
Front-loading means putting the most important word or words at the beginning of the heading. This makes headings easier and faster to understand.
- Everything you need to know about applying for funding
- When will my delivery package arrive?
- Apply for funding
- Delivery schedule
2. Don’t write headings as questions
There are a couple reasons why we don’t want to write headings as questions. First, the structure often doesn’t allow us to front-load the heading. Second, a question can introduce doubt to the reader and skew search engine optimization (SEO) results.
We know that many people use search engines like Google by typing a question in the search bar. Google rewards web pages that answer these questions. As a government body, we want to have clear and authoritative answers and content.
Original: Is there evidence that the sky is blue?
- We know that the sky is blue. Let’s just say it
Updated: The sky is blue
- Clear statement of fact that’s also front-loaded
Original: Should I be worried about data privacy and security?
- If a reader of your content wasn’t worried about data privacy and security before visiting your website, they may be now
- We’ve introduced doubt and highlighted that other people are asking this question
Updated: Data privacy and security
- This statement of fact is clear, concise and delivered with an authoritative voice
- People who asked the original question get an answer
3. Use a hierarchical structure
You must use a standard hierarchical heading structure:
H1: Page title
H2: Main headings
H3: Sub-headings to H2s
H4: Sub-headings to H3s
H5: Sub-headings to H4s, use sparingly
H6: Sub-headings to H5s, use sparingly
In addition to being an industry standard, this structure:
- Organizes information for the reader
- Improves SEO
- Is critical for accessibility, especially for people using screen readers
Inverted pyramid structure
The inverted pyramid is a writing structure commonly used in journalism, where the most important information is placed at the top of the article, followed by supporting details in descending order of importance. It’s like front-loading a heading, the most important ideas come first.
Journalists use this structure to make sure their articles are clear, concise and easy to understand, perfect for readers who have limited time or attention spans.
For print publications, this structure also allows editors to easily cut articles from the bottom up to fit the available space in the newspaper or magazine.
We take the same approach when writing our content.
Use headings to build your pyramids
When making a plan on how you want to structure your content, visualize multiple inverted pyramids, stacked vertically.
Formatting and punctuation
Formatting and punctuation may seem like a small part of content creation, but both make a big difference in the readability, polish and standardization of your product.
Use sentence case for all titles, buttons and calls to action. This includes the header, footer and all navigation.
This means you capitalize only the first letter of a sentence and the proper nouns.
Sentence case is considered the most readable form of text. It also spotlights proper-nouns nicely!
Ampersands and abbreviations
Don’t use an ampersand (&) in titles, navigation titles or body text.
Don’t use abbreviations. For example:
Don’t use the Oxford comma. Avoiding the use of the Oxford comma can make content more straightforward and easier to read. This is especially true for audiences who may not be familiar with punctuation rules or use English as an additional language.
The gov.bc.ca Web Style Guide has clear guidance on emphasizing text. Bold, italics and dashes are where most mistakes are made. Remember:
- Use bold sparingly
- Don’t use italics unless it’s a scientific name
- Avoid em dashes. In most cases, you can just use 2 shorter sentences
Content and design elements
Writing is designing so be deliberate with your choices.
Calls to action
A call to action (CTA) is part of a reader’s journey through content.
A CTA can be used as bridge from one website to another. For example, reading background information on how to submit a funding application and then launching the application portal.
A CTA can also be used as navigation, linking readers from one section of a website to another.
- Learn more
- Click here
- Visit the website
- Apply now
- Explore the Digital Plan
- Complete your application
Use of buttons
Use buttons sparingly. On a single webpage, aim to only include 1 button. They draw the eye and make a great CTA. Too many and the reader can get confused.
Hyperlinked text needs to make sense without reading the content before or after it.
Links should be used to avoid duplicating content that is already published by other sources. For example, instead of copying and pasting instructions on how to apply for a bus pass, link to the official source.
Always link telephone or SMS numbers. Readers on mobile devices will appreciate the effort.
Always link email addresses.
Don’t write out a URL and then hyperlink it.
Make sure the hyperlinked text matches the destination. For example, if the reader is being directed to a survey, the hyperlinked text should include key words like “complete the survey.”
- Click here for digital guidance information
- Learn more about our current survey
- For more information go to the gaming website
- Go to destinationbc.ca
- To improve your services, use our digital guidance
- Share your feedback, complete the survey
- GamesBC is the best source of information
- Visit Destination BC
Alerts are best used to communicate urgent or time sensitive changes.
An alert must come with an end date. If your content has found itself with a long-term alert, it’s time to complete a content refresh.
Images and icons
The use of images and icons on digital.gov.bc.ca is intentionally minimalistic. This is for accessibility purposes, ease of navigation and to maintain a consistent experience across B.C. government platforms.
To align with government standards for the use of graphics in web content, we only use images that are relevant and add context to the text.
All images must include corresponding alt text.
All images must have an appropriate license or permissions for use.
As with all the content on a government platform, all PDFs on digital.gov.bc.ca must be created to be accessible.
We strongly encourage the adaptation of PDFs into web content for accessibility and ease of maintenance.
Building a web page
When we’re creating new content or editing existing information for a digital.gov.bc.ca web page, these are the page elements we include.
Navigation title and page title
First, create your page title. It should clearly capture what your content is about.
Then, decide on your navigation title. This is often the text displayed in the breadcrumb navigation. It should be similar to your page title, but shorter and simpler.
An introduction sentence or sentences set the stage for the reader. It should provide a high-level summary of the content.
In our design research, one insight we found was readers wanted to know, “Is this information right for me?” To address this, we include a phrase like “Use this guide if you need to create an online form or survey.”
A table of contents is a good way to describe on-page navigation.
For digital.gov.bc.ca, all our H2 headings are included in our on-page navigation.
For web pages that include content from a lengthy report or policy, we sometimes include H3s as well. The Digital Plan and Digital Code of Practice are 2 examples of this approach.
Date last updated
We include the date the page was last updated on all digital.gov.bc.ca pages. This helps the reader know if the information is current and can be trusted.
It also holds our team accountable to keep pages updated.
We don’t change the date if we make a small edit, like correcting a spelling mistake or fixing a broken link.
URLs should be short and timeless.
A URL does not need to include the page’s full title. A URL should try to avoid the use of dates, like a year (2023).
A URL should also avoid using the same word twice. In this case, we don’t need to mention British Columbia or B.C., as it’s always covered by digital.gov.bc.ca