Content Style Guide: Language, Voice, and Tone

One of the best ways to ensure that our website is user-friendly is to follow industry best practices, keep the content focused on key user tasks, and keep our content up-to-date at all times.

Although we are in an academic environment, plain language will help all of our users get their work done more quickly. Plain language will also ensure our content is easy and accessible to our many diverse users. Plain language is so important that there is a federal mandate to use it on all government websites.

Aim for a "business casual" voice.

Libraries are about collections, resources, and services but they’re also about people. Showing our people side will help users find the library less intimidating.
  • Be friendly, direct, and helpful.
  • It’s ok to address user as “you” and ourselves as “we.”
  • Contractions are OK.

(Thanks to Courtney McDonald at Indiana University Library for the term “business casual” to describe website voice.)

Use active voice.

Active: Renew your library books…

Passive: Library books can be renewed…

Tip: sometimes it’s hard to identify passive voice.  Dr. Rebecca Johnson suggests inserting “by zombies” after the verb and if the sentence still makes sense, you’re using the passive voice.

Use future-friendly language.

Avoid language that will need to be updated once an event occurs or a person leaves.

  • Instead of “The new classroom will become available in September 2015” say “As of September, 2015 the classroom is available…”
  • Refer to positions, not people (“the Library Dean” vs. “John Wilkin”) unless it’s important that you reference the specific person.
  • For services or groups, provide contact info via a group email address instead of a specific person.
  • Avoid directional language that describes the location of something on the page. For example “in the upper left corner of the page” (this isn’t useful for assistive technology users and that interface may change depending on the device).

Avoid academic, formal, or complex words when simple ones will do.

Use simple words over complex.

Use simple phrasings:

  • utilize → use
  • to ensure → for
  • in order to → to
  • with the possible exception of → except for
  • at which time → when
  • in spite of the fact that → although
  • e.g., → for example

For more examples, see list of simple words and phrases.

Tip: try out the xkcd simple writer as a way to identify overly complex words.

Avoid unnecessary library jargon.

Jargon is an ongoing challenge for libraries. Jargon that has no value to the users should be avoided (for example, OPAC).

Don’t use internal labeling and unit names. A service might be provided by R&I or TIS but the users don’t need to know that. Likewise, we may use the term “libguides” internally but the preferred outward facing label is “Subject Guides.” See Naming Conventions for more examples.

Do use technical terms when needed (for example, VPN, database), just make sure the context surrounding it provides adequate meaning or explain it in plain language.

Use language our users use.

Users often use different language than we do. If you want your content to be findable, make sure to include their terms along with “official” terms.

For more examples, see EBSCO research “Do Your Students Use Library-ese?

Use inclusive language.

  • Use “they,” “them,” and “their” as a singular pronoun if your subject’s gender is unknown or irrelevant.
  • Don’t use “one” or “he/she” or “s/he,” “he or she,” etc.

Want more? See Conscious Style Guide for more suggestions about writing about disabilities, age, gender, etc. and Mail Chimp Content Style Guide’s Writing for Translation for more suggestions for writing for an international audience.

Avoid figurative language.

Avoid idioms, slang, and cliches because they may be difficult for some users to understand.

Your friendly Web Services Librarian

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Matthew Reidsma
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(616) 331-3577


Guide content originally created by Suzanne Chapman for the University of Illinois Libraries. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons By 4.0 license.

  • Last Updated: Apr 17, 2024 11:25 AM
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