GCS style guide

The GCS style guide is a reference point for writing documents simply, clearly and in plain English.

Many departments have their own style guides and this cross-Civil Service style guide will complement them.

Government Communication Service: Style guide (PDF 361KB)

Introduction
First principles

Introduction

Written communication is at the heart of what many of us do as civil servants.

Good communication is essential to make sure that the Government’s policies are understood and that our public services are delivered effectively.

The purpose of this guide is to encourage clear, concise writing and consistent editorial practice. It identifies aspects of English usage that are among the most common causes of uncertainty and misunderstanding and sets out the style appropriate to government communications.

We use many types of communication in government to inform and advise internal and external audiences, including policy documents, ministerial briefings, blogs, emails, tweets, letters, speeches and so on. Some of these have their own rules (social media for example) and speeches offer opportunities to use language more creatively. We should always write with our audience in mind, using simple and engaging language that grabs their attention and keeps it.

Clear, pithy writing shows respect for your reader. It takes more effort to write concisely but if you take the trouble your audience will thank you.

When you come across examples of good, elegant, clear writing make a note of them or collect them as models for you and others to follow. Equally, examples of bad or confusing writing will remind you of what you need to avoid.

This guide is here to help you. Uuse it but remember it is a guide not a diktat. It is designed to set a framework within which you can feel confident to write in your own style.

First principles

We can start by setting out some fundamental principles of good written communication:

• use plain English and avoid long or complicated words when short or easy ones are available; • use active language, not passive. It is usually clearer, more direct and more concise and does not disguise who is doing what. For example, “We will make a decision on your application once we have received your letter”, not “Once we have received your letter, a decision will be made on your application”; and “We recommend that you…”, not “it is recommended that…”;
• avoid technical language and jargon unless you are addressing a specialist audience and even then use it with care;
• use short sentences without multiple sub-clauses. Sentences should usually be no longer than 25 words; and
• you can usually remove a third to a half of what you write in a first draft.

Get someone to check what you have written, especially if it will be read outside government. Read back what you write. If it sounds wrong or comes awkwardly off the tongue then the meaning is probably obscure and you are not communicating effectively. Broadly speaking it is best to write as you would speak. If in doubt, George Orwell’s five golden rules for good writing:
• never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; • never use a long word where a short one will do;
• if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; • never use the passive when you can use the active; and
• never use a foreign phrase, a scientific or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Think how you would describe the issue you are writing about to a family member or friend. Too often we use technical terms that most people, including some of our own colleagues, do not understand. Our aim should be to open up government information so everyone can understand it.

Finally, to emphasise that we need communicators who are confident enough to be themselves, Orwell’s little-known sixth rule says, “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”. You will find a list of additional sources and guides to good writing at the end of this document.

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