A revolutionised Editorial Style Guide – creating a single source of truth

This is a story about a revolution in the sphere of University content. Not a noisy revolution, but an important one, involving major changes to one of the best tools we have for preparing written content – the Editorial Style Guide.

In a collaborative piece of work driven by user research,  we have transformed a lengthy PDF A-Z guide into a new website with succinct, intuitive sections. Moving away from separate guides for print and digital content, the new site brings together style advice for all formats into one place – a single source of truth.

The University of Edinburgh Editorial Style Guide site

What is the Editorial Style Guide?

Before detailing the changes we made, here’s a bit more about the Style Guide and what it’s for.

The Editorial Style Guide is your go-to source if you need to prepare any written content for the University. In short, it sets out the House style, or the way we write.

In the Style Guide you’ll find a list of conventions, like when you should use capital letters and when you shouldn’t, how you should spell certain words and how you should use abbreviations. If you have ever swithered over whether to write a number out in full or use a numeral (numerals better), wondered if you should spell ‘revolutionised’ with a ‘z’ or a ‘s’ (it’s an ‘s’) or considered if you can refer to a Professor as ‘Prof’ (please don’t), the Style Guide is for you.

By sticking to the advice and conventions in the guide you help ensure people reading the University’s content have a uniform experience.

What prompted the change?

In 2019, a joint project with Communications and Marketing began to start overhauling the Digital Editorial Style Guide. This piece of work started in recognition of the fact that, for something to be useful, it needs to be usable.

At the Web Publishers Community meet-up in September 2019, Lizzie Cass-Maran, Senior Content Designer in the UX and Digital Consultancy Team learned that disappointingly low numbers of staff were regularly using and engaging with the guide. Probing further, Lizzie did a hybrid card sort with typical users, revealing useful insights about how people used the guide, including what they searched for, what they wanted to find, and the categories they expected to see structuring the guide’s content. This  important piece of research affirmed the need for change and helped shape the next iteration of the guide.

You can read more about Lizzie’s research work at the Web Publishers’ Community in September 2019 in her blog:

Revolutionising the Editorial Style Guide – Findings from Web Publishers’ September

What was wrong with the old guide?

Several factors needed to be addressed in the work to overhaul the guide.

PDFs are not accessible

The old PDF format spelled trouble in the form of a host of accessibility issues. It also meant that to update anything in the guide (for example, to add a convention for writing about Covid-19) you needed to republish the whole thing, and hope no one had printed out an old version they were referring to.

Our decisions on points of style need to be transparent

There was ambiguity over the evidence backing up some of the points in the guide. Did users know why they should write numbers as numerals instead of words? Where did that rule come from? Was there any scope for questioning conventions in the guide?

We need a single source of truth

For historical reasons, there were separate versions of the guide for print and digital (despite there being a lot of cross over between the two). Was it still necessary to have two separate guides?

Use of words is a key part of the Design System

Recognising the guide’s crucial role in designing content was an important consideration in it’s development. The guide forms a key part of the wider University Design System – a bigger set of components, principles and processes defining how the University designs content. With the University Design System project under way, it made sense to use the transformation of the Style Guide as a pilot piece to stress-test the University’s wider approach to design.

What’s good about the new guide?

Evolving the guide into a new site presented opportunities to ensure it better supported people in the task of preparing University content.

Tested by users, improved by user feedback

When the site was in draft we took the chance to do usability testing, enlisting the help of staff who used the guide regularly.

The results of the testing were insightful and prompted quick improvements like adding more examples and including a contact form for enquiries. One surprising finding was that users liked using the original PDF guide because of the ease of the ‘Control + F’ shortcut search – this led us to consider how we could make the site easier to search and whether the PDF should remain as part of the site. Other wider considerations arising from the research related to the scope of the application of the guide and the recommendations for use of plain language.

You can read more about the Style Guide user research  in a related blog:

Usability testing the Editorial Style Guide site

Themed sections

Moving the Style Guide from a PDF to a website presented the option to restructure the content. Findings from the card sort in 2019 pointed towards using six broad categories to organise the guide’s key points and conventions, to allow users to more easily navigate the advice. We chose the following categories to structure the guide:

  • Language and tone – with points about plain language, British English and referring to the University
  • Formatting – including advice about capital letters, italics, headings, links and lists
  • Abbreviations – including an A-Z list of commonly used University abbreviations
  • Punctuation – with detail about when and how to use punctuation elements like hyphens, quotation marks and apostrophes
  • Dates and numbers – with advice on how to write numbers in a range of contexts
  • Spelling style – including an A-Z of words to refer to.

Training videos to support content design

In our research, we found that many who used the Style Guide had done the ‘Effective Digital Content’ (formerly ‘Writing for the Web’) training course,  but they said that when they had finished the course, they had tended to forget what they had learned. To address this, we added short videos from the course to some sections of the guide to evidence and explain the conventions. Going forward, we will track viewing metrics to gauge if these videos are useful.

One guide for different contexts

Understanding whether there needed to be separate guides for print and digital had been a key part of the Style Guide transformation. When we collaborated with the Communications and Marketing content team to review the draft site, we found aspects of the advice in it were geared towards digital content. Since (as our staff user testers had noted) the advice for print and digital shared many common areas, it was logical to make room in the site for different contexts, so users could find information for print, signage and digital content in one place. In this spirit of ensuring the Editorial Style Guide was for all content, it was important to choose a URL for the site which positioned it appropriately – ed.ac.uk/editorial-style-guide – in an agnostic, top-level position in the University website’s information architecture.

What’s next?

Publishing the new site is the start of a process to manage and maintain the Style Guide going forward. For the conventions in the Style Guide to be kept aligned with user needs and supported by current evidence and insight, we recognised the need for a group of dedicated University stakeholders committed to the cause. The Editorial Working Group was born. It was agreed that the group would meet regularly to discuss the Style Guide, to consider questions about the conventions in consultation with the University community, and to communicate changes.

As I write, members of the group are being finalised. In the meantime, work remains to be done on the Style Guide to improve the search and to review the way we integrate Effective Digital Content course concepts. And with plans for the Design System under way, establishing the Editorial Working Group couldn’t have come at a better time, with the potential to be a pilot for this wider piece of work. So as one revolution concludes, another is just beginning.

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