Writing style guide
Table of Contents
This UWHR website style guide takes precedence over all other style guides. However, where this style guide is silent, use the latest editions of the following sources (ranked in order of authority):
- UW Brand editorial style and punctuation
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary
When the above sources don’t address an issue, The Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual are acceptable sources.
Use The Yahoo! Style Guide for style issues unique to the web (e.g., links, buttons, heading syntax). Yahoo! should not be used for general writing guidelines; instead refer to the sources named above.
Supplementary web sources are linked within an entry.
Use accordions sparingly. In general, all the content on a page should be relevant to your users. The content should be grouped and prioritized logically, from the user’s perspective. Write descriptive headings that allow users to easily scan through long pages.
Consider accordions when portions of the page’s content are relevant only to particular users but those portions need to be on the same page (for example, FAQ pages).
To see an example, check out UW Carelink.
Source: Accordions Are Not Always the Answer by Nielsen Norman Group
The first time you use an acronym on a page, spell out its meaning and put the acronym in parentheses. For all uses thereafter, use the acronym.
- Ex: The University offers a limited amount of long-term disability (LTD) insurance. Employees may purchase additional LTD insurance.
acronyms in page titles
Spell out an acronym in a page title if the acronym would prevent the user from understanding the page’s purpose. Alternatively, you can use the acronym if followed by a plain language description of the page’s purpose. Include the acronym when you have both experienced users who recognize it and new users who need a plain language description.
- Ex: How consumer-directed health plans work (rather than: How CDHPs work)
- Ex: VEBA: Sick leave cash-out at retirement
- Ex: COBRA: Continue your insurance
This term refers to an individual’s position, including factors such as employment program, department, FTE, etc. A person could have multiple UW appointments.
Your audience is the general employee population (classified non-union, contract classified, and professional staff collectively). Avoid separating content out by role (manager versus employee) or other subcategories (such as union versus non-union or campus versus medical centers) unless absolutely necessary.
“can” versus “may”
capitalization: sentence case
- Ex: This sentence is capitalized in sentence case.
- Ex: The University of Washington is a public university.
capitalization: title case
Title case is most commonly used for titles of policies, forms, and other documents. Capitalize the principal words, including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters. Capitalize an article (the, a, an) or prepositions and conjunctions of fewer than four letters if it is the first or last word in a title.
- Ex: Policy on Reasonable Accommodation of Employees with Disabilities
You should generally avoid color for text, unless it’s a link. It’s especially important to avoid blue text because users often assume that links are blue. The UWHR website generally adheres to UW Brand colors. Any color changes need to be approved by the HR web design team.
Use the serial comma (also commonly known as the Oxford comma) to separate three or more items in a series. The list of items requires a comma before the conjunction (usually “and” or “or”).
- Ex: The UW’s core values are integrity, diversity, excellence, collaboration, innovation, and respect.
You may use a double dash or an actual em-dash (—). WordPress will automatically render it as an em-dash either way. Exception: In a page’s excerpt section, you need to use an actual em-dash, as WordPress will not turn a double dash into an em-dash for you in that section.
An em-dash should have a space on either side of it.
Use “employee” when referring to those employed by the University. Avoid “faculty and other academic appointments and staff” or “faculty and staff.”
Use “employment program” when referring to classified non-union, contract classified, or professional staff. Though only professional staff have a formal program (Professional Staff Program), each group has rules around the terms and conditions of their employment. Classified non-union have civil rules; contract classified have collective bargaining agreements.
Excerpts are a WordPress feature that allows you to write a short summary of a page. Users see the excerpts beneath links in search results, on pathway pages, and on the featured pages shown on an HR unit’s homepage. The main purpose of an excerpt is to help a user quickly decide whether or not to click a link. Thus, keep excerpts very short and descriptive.
Featured pages in WordPress appear on the HR unit homepages. They are a way to highlight certain pages and are meant to be changed regularly, depending on the HR unit’s priorities. Use WordPress’s “excerpt” feature to write the content snippet that appears in the featured section of the homepage.
Titles of forms should be capitalized using title case. The word “form” is not usually capitalized unless the word is part of the document’s official title. Do not use quotation marks around the title. Titles should be the exact words used on the form itself. Later references (on the same webpage) to the form can be shortened and lowercase.
- First reference: 2016 Employee Enrollment/Change form
- Then: the enrollment form
It is okay to use “FTE” without explaining the acronym (full-time equivalent).
When discussing a partial FTE, write in decimal format (0.5 FTE) — not spelled out (50 percent FTE) and not with the % symbol (50% FTE). A zero should come before the decimal.
To foster inclusiveness and avoid awkward sentence construction, use “they,” “them,” and “their” as singular pronouns, instead of using “he” (to mean all people), “he or she,” “he/she,” or “s/he.”
headings and subheadings
Write headings in sentence case. If there is a colon, capitalize the first word after the colon. Headings in tables and charts are also sentence case.
- Ex: Enroll in a health plan
- Ex: Flu shots: Locations
Web users tend to scan content and only read the specific information they need. Therefore, headings are important because they help users quickly find what they need. Use headings to organize your content into smaller, digestible chunks. Users should be able to determine whether a page is helpful to them just by reading the headings.
See entry for page titles.
Avoid italics; they can be difficult to read online. Use italics only on the rare occasion that emphasis is needed.
Use “collective bargaining agreement” instead of “labor contract,” per the preference of the Labor Relations department.
A link’s wording must clearly explain where it will take the user. Add a link when it helps the user either complete the task at hand (e.g., enroll) or find relevant, timely information (e.g., what to know before enrolling).
But add them judiciously. Links both draw the user’s eye and invite the user to leave the page. If a link isn’t essential to a task but is still helpful, put that link either at the bottom of the page or on the right side of the page. Doing so will prevent the user from leaving the page prematurely.
Other linking guidelines:
- Write link text that matches, or nearly matches, the title of the resulting page (to that end, write page titles that work well as links).
- Be concise. However, link length is less important than a good description.
- Don’t use generic, nondescriptive calls to action (e.g., click here, go here, read more) for link text. And generally you don’t need the word “page” because users understand that a link takes them to a webpage.
- When a link falls in the middle of a sentence, lowercase it just as you would any other common word or phrase in the middle of a sentence.
- Ex: If you aren’t eligible for UW-paid GAIP coverage, you may be eligible for the self-pay option, which allows you to pay out-of-pocket for coverage.
- Don’t include end punctuation in a link.
- Don’t include the URL as link text, unless you want the reader to become familiar with the URL (e.g., uwcarelink.com).
Sources: The Yahoo Style Guide and Writing Hyperlinks by Nielsen Norman Group
General rules for bullet or number lists:
- Make sure every list has an introductory phrase or sentence that ends with a colon.
- Use numbered lists to specify sequence or number (for example, steps in a procedure or a top ten list). Use bullets when sequence is unimportant.
- Capitalize the first word of a list item.
- Use end punctuation only if the item’s wording is a complete sentence on its own. If one or more items in the list contain a complete sentence then all items in that list have ending punctuation, even if some of the items are not complete sentences on their own.
- Do not end a list item with a semicolon or a conjunction (and, or, but). Don’t write bullet lists like lawyers do.
- Make sure all items in a list are constructed similarly (also known as parallelism). Every item in a list should start with the same part of speech (noun, verb, preposition, etc.).
“Supervisor” is preferred over “manager.” Not all supervisors have “manager” in their position title.
The exception to this preference is for commonly used terms (such as “hiring manager”) or for an official position title (such as HR manager).
“must” versus “need to” versus “should”
Use “must” when there is a significant consequence for not doing the action (such as legal or corrective action or the next step in a process can’t happen).
Use “need to” or “should” when you mean to strongly encourage but not require.
- Ex: Employees must disclose any professional conflicts of interest. (It is state law.)
- Ex: Employees must provide their bank account information to receive direct deposit paychecks. (The Payroll office cannot make the financial transfer without the information.)
- Ex: Employees should be mindful of ergonomics when sitting at their desk. (This is a really good idea, but the UW won’t penalize you if you slouch at your desk.)
offices and units
Capitalize the formal name of an HR office or unit. The word “office” is not capitalized if it follows the name of a unit.
- Ex: Contact Benefits for more information about insurance.
- Ex: Contact the Benefits office for more information.
See this website’s word list for official UWHR office and unit names.
Write page titles (sometimes called headlines) in sentence case. The page title needs to be descriptive; avoid generic titles (e.g., “Enroll” or “Networks”). If there is a colon, capitalize the first word after the colon.
- Ex: Enroll in a health plan
- Ex: Plan networks: Find a doctor, clinic, or other provider
Use the same vocabulary as your audience, and front load your titles with those keywords. This helps people quickly find what they need (and avoid visiting the wrong page). If the content helps the user take action, consider starting your title with a verb. However, sometimes the action is obvious, and the verb isn’t as helpful.
- Ex. Add or remove a dependent from your insurance
- Ex. Join a credit union
- Ex. Premium surcharges
- Ex. Flu shot clinics
Using colons is an effective way to front load keywords while being both concise and descriptive.
- Ex: Attend a seminar: Retirement planning help
- Ex: Workshops: Prepare to retire from UW
- Ex. Medical students: Long-term disability insurance
When you write descriptive page titles with user-centered keywords, your titles will also work effectively as links. Page titles show up as links both in search results and on other pages. And because users see the page title alone (as a link) before they see it above its content, the title needs to be descriptive enough to stand on its own.
Pathway pages offer a “pathway” for the user to navigate from an HR unit’s homepage to the unit’s content pages. Generally, a pathway page consists solely of page links and excerpts.
- Ex: Health insurance
point of view
The UWHR website is written in second person (you) with a conversational tone, as though you are speaking directly with an individual.
- Ex: You may accrue up to 240 hours of annual leave.
- Not: Employees may accrue up to 240 hours of annual leave.
When calling the audience to action, use an imperative verb (where the “you” subject is implied).
- Ex: Request time off by following your department’s leave request procedure.
- Not: You should request time off by following your department’s leave request procedure.
- Not: Employees should request time off by following their department’s leave request procedure.
As much as appropriate, use first person pronouns (we/our) instead of “UW” or “University.”
- Ex: UW CareLink, our employee assistance program, provides free counseling.
- Not: UW CareLink, the University’s employee assistance program, provides free counseling.
When citing a policy within text, the preference is to use general terminology instead of the policy title.
- Ex: For more information, read the employee accommodation policy.
When an in-text citation needs the actual policy title, capitalize in title case and put the policy type and number in parentheses after the title. The link is only attached to the policy title, not the parenthetical information.
- Ex: For more information, read the Policy on Reasonable Accommodation of Employees with Disabilities (APS 46.5).
When citing as an additional resource (such as in a bullet list of resources or on the right side of a page), note the type of policy and number first, followed by the title in title-case capitalization with no quotation marks. An executive order uses “No.” before its number, but an administrative policy statement (APS) does not. Links to the actual policy should be on only the policy type and number, not on the entire title.
- Ex: APS 46.5 Policy on Reasonable Accommodation of Employees with Disabilities
- Ex: Executive Order No. 57 Outside Professional Work Policy
Avoid slashes. Instead explain the relationship between the two words or use a hyphen when appropriate, such as when modifying. The exception is 24/7.
Use the 555-555-5555 format, including for toll-free numbers (800-555-5555).
For phone numbers that use letters, follow with numbers in parentheses.
- Ex: 206-685-SAFE (7233)
Professional titles are lowercase unless they come directly before someone’s name.
- Ex: Joe Smith, director of athletics
- Ex: Director Joe Smith
Don’t underline any text that’s not a link. When reading content online, people think underlining indicates a link. Using underlining for any other reason can cause confusion.
up to, and including, dismissal
Avoid using this phrase or similar language. Most employees understand that if they violate policies and expectations, they may receive some sort of corrective action. So no need to threaten. The exceptions might be in cases where their consequences could be more severe than they might expect, such as immediate dismissal or civil or criminal legal action.
Write in active voice, not passive. A sentence is in active voice when the subject is the doer of the act. Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon.
- Active: You may donate paid leave to the Shared Leave Program.
- Passive: Paid leave may be donated to the Shared Leave Program.
Generally, use “whether” alone — not with the words “or not” tacked on (e.g., they didn’t know whether to go). The “or not” is necessary only when you mean to convey the idea of “regardless of whether” (e.g., we’ll finish on time whether or not it rains).
word as a word
When referring to a word as a word, use quotation marks.
- Ex: People often confuse the word “affect” with “effect.”