This is how we do it

Publication date
Tuesday 8 November 2022

Style Manual content is user-focused, descriptive and evidence-based. We explain what this means and how it shapes the way we work.

Have you ever wondered what goes into producing content for the Australian Government Style Manual (Style Manual)? Well, hold on to your hat – it’s quite a process. Let’s start at the beginning.

The Style Manual is user-focused, descriptive and evidence-based – 3 principles that underpin all our guidance.

User-focused

The Style Manual must meet user needs. Users should be able to find, understand and apply our guidance.

Descriptive

Style Manual rules describe how language and style are used in the real world. Our rules shouldn’t prescribe how language should be used regardless of contemporary use.

Evidence-based

There must be evidence to support Style Manual rules.

Evidence can include:

  • usage data
  • expert advice
  • existing rules
  • long-standing convention
  • accessibility testing
  • readability assessments.

It is fair to say that there is a lot of content we’d like to add to the manual. When the digital edition was published in September 2020, it was a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP). In the manual’s context, ‘MVP’ meant that it was the smallest thing we could deliver that would meet the bulk of users’ needs. We knew the content wouldn’t answer every question, but it did meet most needs identified during the discovery stage of the project.

We continue to work on delivering more and better content now that the Style Manual is live. We are a much smaller team now and sometimes the task feels overwhelming.

Sources of new content

There are 4 main sources of new content:

  • expert reviews
  • content backlog
  • changes to conventions and emerging user needs
  • user feedback.

Expert reviews

Before we published the MVP we asked a small group of expert editors, linguists, graphic designers and content designers to review the content. We weren’t able to incorporate all their feedback before the manual went live, so we prioritised it in order of importance. Our work to incorporate expert feedback into the manual continues.

Content backlog

There are topics in the sixth edition that didn’t meet the threshold for the MVP. These topics are still important for users and we’ve captured them in a backlog.

Changes to convention and emerging user needs

As new issues arise we prioritise them and add them to our backlog.

This includes:

  • changes in convention – for example, we recently updated our Australian Defence Force content with the help of the Department of Defence
  • emerging user needs – for example, we plan to develop guidance about creating content for people experiencing extreme stress or trauma.

User feedback

At the bottom of every Style Manual page we ask for user feedback. We retain and review this feedback looking for gaps, emerging trends and points of contention. Once prioritised, these are added to the backlog.

Mapping our work ahead

To guide this and other Style Manual work, we developed a product roadmap. The roadmap defines the long­-term goals of the Style Manual and helps us prioritise our work to reach those goals. We review the roadmap regularly and it is endorsed by the Style Manual Governance Board (Governance Board) – more about them in a minute.

Our current priority is to complete the expert reviews. We also prioritise changes that ensure the Style Manual is correct and up-to-date. For example, we recently updated the ‘Royalty, vice-royalty and nobility’ page to reflect the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

This is how we do it

That covers how we identify what we will work on, next is ‘how we do the work’. Every topic is different, but follows a similar work flow and is guided by our 3 principles:

  • User-focused – what do users need to know about this topic?
  • Descriptive – does the proposed rule describe current usage and can people apply the rule to their content?
  • Evidence-based – is there evidence to support this rule or does the evidence support something else?

Research

The first thing we do is produce a user story. The user story explains why users need the content and what problem it solves for them. It is short statement written from the user’s perspective. It usually takes the format:

As a … (type of user) I want to/need to … (the task) so that I can … (the reason they need to complete the task).

Example

  • As a government writer or editor, I want to know the rules for spacing and coding telephone numbers so they are readable, accessible and useable.

When we understand the problem to be solved we can begin to research the topic. This usually involves working with subject experts. These experts might work in government, industry, academia or advocacy. In addition to their own knowledge, subject experts introduce subject-specific source material. We also use several contemporary style resources from Australia and overseas.

Depending on the content we may also access:

  • usage (corpus) evidence from the Australian National Dictionary Centre and the Linguistics department at the Australian National University
  • editorial advice from industry experts, including an IPEd Distinguished Editor
  • advice from accessibility professionals
  • readability assessments.

Draft

We write a content outline that includes:

  • scope of content (what topics to cover)
  • reference sources
  • names of subject experts or contributors
  • resultant changes and links to other content in the Style Manual.

Once the Style Manual supervising editor approves the content outline, we can begin drafting the content. This includes examples. Examples are an important content type in the manual as they demonstrate how to apply the rules and guidance.

Review

We send the completed draft to the Style Manual Working Group (Working Group) for comment. The Working Group consists of members from over 30 Australian Government agencies. They represent the primary users of the Style Manual and provide a vital link to those who write and use government content. Working Group input ensures the Style Manual keeps pace with user expectations and remains relevant to the work of the Australian Government. We ask members to review draft content for:

  • Completeness – will this answer questions that arise in my agency?
  • Comprehension – can I understand and apply this guidance?
  • Technical accuracy – are there errors of fact or emphasis?

After incorporating Working Group changes, we check back with the subject expert. This ensures there are no introduced errors and the content remains fit for purpose.

Copyedit and proofread

The content is copyedited so that it accords with Style Manual guidance and then proofread.

Approve

Finally, the content is approved by the Governance Board before publication. The Governance Board consists of SES Band 1 officers from 8 agencies.

In addition to approving content, the board provides strategic direction and oversight of the Style Manual.

Publish

After the content is approved, we note any rule changes on the release notes of the page. We also update the Style Manual Changelog. We do promote new and substantially revised content in our monthly newsletter, but you can visit the Changelog at any time to check for changes to the manual.

That’s it folks

We all have ingrained preferences and style habits. Indeed, there is guidance in the Style Manual that contradict some of mine. Change is uncomfortable, but Style Manual content relies on expert advice, is based on evidence and is endorsed by our stakeholders. So now when my preferences are challenged, I grumble a bit and then get on with it – confident that the guidance is sound.

Next time you wonder where a Style Manual rule comes from, you will at least know the journey it’s been on.

Susan Baird is the Style Manual engagement officer.